COLUMNIST: Will MPs ever be complimentary about farmers?

One of these days I'm going to get a shock. One of these days a politician will stand up and say something complimentary about British farming.

Tuesday, 5th June 2018, 11:17 am
Updated Tuesday, 5th June 2018, 11:22 am

But it won’t be this week, clearly. This week has seen yet another round of farmer-bashing at the highest levels of Government.

Farmers – if Michael Gove is to be believed – are wicked polluters who are poisoning the very air we breathe and are to be made subject to stricter and tighter limits on ammonia emissions under government plans to improve UK air quality.

Well, when you’ve just suffered the embarrassment of being referred to the European courts for failing to meet new national standards for air quality it’s useful to be able to divert people’s attention by pointing the finger of blame elsewhere.

And where better than at the farming community, the softest of all targets and the most obvious one since large sections of the population are already convinced that farming is a mucky business anyway.

But what particularly got up my nose – apart from another display of toadying to ministers by Neil Parish, of whom we once had high expectations – was the suggestion that farmers have somehow been playing fast and loose when it comes to observing anti-pollution controls.

And it didn’t take long for this inference to work its way through to the anti-farmer BBC, whose news website boldly informed the public that farmers ‘have largely evaded pollution controls so far’, adding ever so smugly that ‘they will be told to buy new equipment to reduce airborne ammonia from slurry’.

The BBC’s journalists should really stop believing everything they see on Countryfile. Environmental pollution is already tightly controlled on farms. It has been since the Environment Agency’s clampdown on slurry storage to protect water courses and the introduction of the Nitrate Vulnerable Zone controls.

There may have been some accidental breaches of the regulations but very, very few farmers have deliberately flouted them because of the eye-watering penalties they can incur.

So for Michael Gove to wheel out a new set of benchmarks and immediately denigrate farmers for failing to attain them is the cheapest shot imaginable – though not a surprising one.

As to farmers being told to buy new equipment I just hope there will be some kind of government grant available, because to expect small dairy farms to invest in costly new kit with incomes at their present depressed level and profits virtually undetectable will only have one possible outcome – a further surge in exits from the sector.

I note the initial targets – and this is the only bright spot in this whole sad saga - will be the farms at the top end of the scale, the mega-units that have been created in an attempt to bring unit costs down and make milk production at least marginally profitable.

They are the ones, of course, whose emissions have been the highest. But that has only come about and they have only been created as a result of successive governments allowing supermarkets to take over and run British food policy and protect their profits at the expense of everyone else’s.

Small and medium family farms do not create the same kind of environmental nuisance nor contribute markedly to the national problem.

But to suggest to politicians that the current and apparently unacceptable situation is largely down to their own inept performances over the years would not, I fear, be met with anything other than blustering denials. Even though it’s a fact.