Owen Paterson is touring the UK in an attempt to gain votes for the Leave campaign. He spoke to Olivia Midgley about the EU’s constrictive regulatory environment and why he’s hoping for a double celebration on June 24.
Dairy Farmer editor spoke to Owen Paterson at him home in Shropshire
Brexit would give the UK the perfect opportunity to develop a ‘saner’ agricultural policy which not only secured food production but improved the environment.
Former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson highlighted the ‘mind boggling’ bureaucracy which was generated in Europe and forced on Britain’s farmers – rules which he said often put producers at a competitive disadvantage.
The North Shropshire MP and Vote Leave campaign member, who was speaking to producers in the North West this week, sought to reassure farmers that agricultural support payments would remain, while needless red tape would be disposed of.
“With our landscape there will always be a role for public support because there is no means of compensating farmers for the environmental and public good they deliver,” said Mr Paterson, highlighting the upland areas in England, Wales and Scotland.
He said if Britain voted to break away from the union, nothing would change immediately after the referendum; however changes to the country’s agricultural policy would be ‘evolutionary’.
“We would decide our own support system,” said the Conservative MP.
“I do not see this nervousness that the country is going to take a chainsaw to agricultural and environmental support when agriculture, fisheries and food and drink manufacture provides one in eight jobs. Therefore this is of interest to every constituency.
“We would target the money in a much more effective manner.
“For example floods – we will have a properly targeted environmental policy designed specifically for our landscape, our environment and our industry.
“We would sit down with our industry and representatives and you could work out a sane policy pretty rapidly.”
He said there was a massive opportunity for the Government, post-Brexit, to draw on the expertise of the farming and countryside organisations to deliver a ‘sensible’ policy.
“This CAP round dies in 2020,” said Mr Paterson, adding it was not a ‘safe, cosy option’ to remain in the EU.
“There is no certainty it will carry on,” he said.
“There is no certainty the money will carry on.
“At the end of the last MFF [Multiannual Financial Framework] they had uncovered spending commitments of 230bn euro which carries over. That is a dramatic.
“The CAP is 46 per cent of the current budget. They can’t go on at these levels when they have got this amount of debt. Far safer is to vote to leave and put it in the hands of our politicians who can be voted in and out if they make bad decisions and can be lobbied.”
Mr Paterson said the constrictive regulatory environment in Brussels had meant farmers and growers were missing out on products which could help them improve production and in turn, profitability.
He added: “The EU is becoming the museum of world farming because it is so hostile to new technologies.”
Mr Paterson said a classic example was the European Commission’s moratorium on neonicotinoids, which he said rode roughshod over sound scientific evidence.
“I had allies like Hungary which had two million hectares under neonicotinoids and a huge honey industry producing 20,000 tonnes of honey a year without any damage to their bees. “Like me, they were terribly worried about the alternatives.”
Mr Paterson said the decision, which was ‘rammed through’ because opposing members states did not get a majority, meant falling back on older technologies which were ‘perfectly legal and licenced’, for example pyrethroids which he said could do ‘real damage’ to the aquatic environment.
“We have seen rape plantings go down and we have seen rape yields go down and I bet no one has done the analysis of the cost of the environmental damage being done by pyrethroids,” said Mr Paterson.
“You have got the latest round with glyphosate which is a nonsense. This is an established material which is being used widely. Has anyone thought of what the alternative would be?
“If we get our independence back and celebrate on my birthday, which is June 24, we would get our seat back on the world bodies.
“All these bodies are increasingly deciding global regulation. In our industry we’re talking about organisations such as the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) the OIE which decides international regulation on animal disease and Codex Alimentarius which similarly covers food and food production rules.
Mr Paterson said the UK, free from the regulatory burden of the EU, would ‘follow our science’ and ‘throw out the ridiculous precautionary principle’.
“Yes we would work with the world bodies to make sure there was rigorous scrutiny of products but we would innovate,” he added.
“We should embrace the innovation principle because as a country we should be really encouraging technology and boost all the amazing development centres like John Innes and Rothamsted.
“I would like the UK to become the world centre for advanced agricultural research.”
Mr Paterson said the EU had made a ‘complete mess’ of its handling of genetic modification (GM), meaning the UK and the rest of Europe had fallen behind other countries.
“We are at a flat start - there is no product we could plant this afternoon,” he said.
“It is tragic we are slipping further behind.”
He said Brexit would provide biotechnology companies with the confidence they needed to invest, enabling the UK to claw back research and development projects which had been pushed overseas.
“Big biotech companies have told me there is no point in them spending 10 or 12 years and €300m on a project and having it skittled by superstition and witchcraft. We would listen to our scientists,” he added.
Mr Paterson also rebuffed claims the UK would have little clout when negotiating trade deals with other countries.
He added: “We’re about to become the most populous country in Europe. We will have the largest economy with the largest population.
We’ve got highly respected civil service and diplomatic service that just need proper political direction.
“At the moment they spend exhaustive, vast amounts of time haggling away within the EU and getting out voted.
“The EU is making less and less law and regulation. It is the global level where we want to work, with like-minded allies who have similar views on agricultural matters, plant health and disease and food production.”
Highlighting the Scottish whisky industry, he said the UK faced Indian, national and local duties of about 550 per cent.
“We reckoned if we could get the duty down to 37 per cent there probably wouldn’t be enough distilling capacity in the whole of Scotland, so there are enormous opportunities.”
Mr Paterson also lamented the abolition of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.
“SAWS worked really well,” he added.
“You brought in Romanians and Bulgarians in targeted destinations for a fixed time. They worked very hard and very skilfully and then went home. We would have managed and targeted immigration for certain skills.”