Minister foresees end of direct payments

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DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson yesterday called for a radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy which would lead to an inevitable end of direct support payments.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, the minister for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said he was working hard to build alliances as negotiations for the 2014-2020 round were finalised in the coming months.

But he said the talks were unlikely to see European agriculture end up where he would like.

“It is clear that in this round, Pillar 1 [direct support] will continue, but it’s inevitable given the austerity in Europe and borrowing so much means the public won’t pay for food twice.

“I would like decisions on which food to produce to be left to the market, so farmers alone decide which crops to grow and which animals to raise according to demand.

“I do, however, believe there is a role for taxpayers’ money in compensating farmers for the work they do in enhancing the environment and providing public goods for which there is no market mechanism.”

Paterson said he would continue to push for greater simplification of CAP as the UK was unable to afford another round of complex or costly reforms.

He also called on flexibility for nations and regions, explaining that three crop rotations set out in reform plans do not work in all areas of the EU. “The greening of Pillar 1 requires massive regionalisation,” he said.

MEP Mairead McGuinness, of the European Parliament agriculture committee, agreed that some environmental elements of the reform, such as crop rotations and forcing all farmers to have 7 per cent ecological focus areas on their farms, were not practical. “A blank one-size-fits-all approach favoured by the European Commission is unacceptable,” she said.

Instead of separate environmental policies being built into the CAP, McGuinness said there needed to be a holistic farm policy which took the environment into account, as well as the diversity of different countries.

Jim McLaren, Quality Meat Scotland chairman, said a regional approach was vitalfor countries like Scotland where sustaining crop diversity would be difficult. McLaren said maintaining a strong Pillar 1 was also necessary for farmers in Scotland to continue to thrive.

“It’s early to say what will happen with the CAP, but we will definitely move towards area payments,” he said. “The historic system is catastrophically out-dated but we have to recognise the diversity of the opportunity in Scotland.

“The proportion of LFA is much higher, so maintaining profitability through support is going to be a reality for many in Scotland for a long while to come.”