The future of Britain’s membership of the European Union was under the spotlight when European agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan and former UK secretary of state Owen Paterson went head-to-head on day two of the Oxford Farming Conference.
In an impassioned speech, Paterson said UK agricultural production was being hampered by the EU thanks to over-zealous environmental policies, an unwillingness to adopt science and innovation, and a precautionary approach to regulation.
He said the UK could become a world-leader in food production and agricultural research, but to achieve that it needed to leave the EU.
Setting out his vision for a British agricultural policy, Paterson said that, outside the EU, the government could work to grow the rural economy, improving the environment and protecting the country from animal and plant diseases.
He said current regulations prevented local decision-making, which meant that few policies were suited to UK farmers.
“Funds will be allocated in a much more effective and targeted manner by policymakers with a full understanding of the UK industry and environment,” he said.
“A UK policy should encourage import substitution, the export of quality products, and the government should direct public procurement, worth £2.4 billion, towards UK producers.”
Despite pushing for cuts in the common agricultural policy (CAP) direct payments budget during his tenure as Defra minister, Paterson said it was essential that agriculture received a “significant level” of support from the Exchequer.
He suggested that farmers could receive the same level of support, if not more, and suggestions that subsidies would be cut were simply scare stories.
Commissioner Hogan said the CAP provided the foundation for economic growth and jobs across the food chain – something UK farmers could not afford to lose.
“We mustn’t forget the historical mission of the CAP – to ensure the sufficient supply of safe and sustainably produced food at a quality which our consumers expect, despite the uncertainties which farmers face such as weather, animal disease, or market prices,” he said. That was vital in a country like Britain, which imported nearly 40 per cent of its food.
Hogan said Britain could not hope to achieve things by itself, and that having the support of 27 other member states was vital in helping it achieve its goals – particularly on access to markets.
“You would still want access to internal markets, but that comes at a price,” he added. “Would farmers be expected to pay towards the access fee? There’s no such thing as a free pass, just ask Norway and Switzerland.”
Hogan also warned farmers to think about how their funding could be affected, pointing out that the Defra budget had been cut by 34 per cent since 2010 – while the European budget had only been reduced by 3 per cent.