Thursday, October 23, 2008

Europe, farmers and waterlogged land

Earlier this month, in discussing a Shropshire Star article which described how the government had extended the period during which farmers can use heavy machinery on waterlogged soil to save crops from rotting in the field, I asked:
But why do farmers need government dispensation before they can use machinery in this way? Perhaps it is bad for the land to do it. But farmland has owners, so why can't we assume that they will not damage their asset unless they have good reason, such as saving a crop?
This question has now been raised in the Lords. Yesterday's Hansard records the following exchange:

Baroness Boothroyd asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many British farmers have been prosecuted under European Union rules for using a combine harvester on wet land.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): None, my Lords. Breaching cross-compliance would result not in a prosecution but normally in a reduction in payment. As part of the EU’s direct payment to farmers, member states must set cross-compliance conditions aimed at preventing soil damage through the inappropriate use of agricultural machinery. No farmers have been found in breach of the relevant English standard. To enable farmers to complete their harvest, my department granted a derogation.

Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, I am delighted to hear that there have been no prosecutions, but does not the Minister hold the view that British farmers are the best judges of whether or not to use heavy machinery on their wet fields? Surely they know better than Brussels bureaucrats how to protect their soil quality for future harvests. When can we expect this ludicrous EU rule to be abandoned so that British farmers can use their common sense?

And then other peers joined in to support the former speaker.

The Lib Dem peer Paul Tyler put his finger on part of the problem when he asked:

will the Minister confirm that other member states have negotiated a more complete and comprehensive derogation? What steps could our Government take to make this a much less rigorous and much more flexible system than the one that it seems is being imposed on British farmers at the moment?

But wouldn't it be better not to have to derogate from such legislation in the first place?

1 comment:

Klaus Westwood said...

AS a farmer I naturally support any argument that sides with a call for less regulation and less governmental interference, but I suspect you (and some of their Lordships) are missing the point on this one. Many cross-compliance regulations actually have environmental aims at their core. Using machinery on waterlogged land can cause compaction, which not only damages soil structure, but also increases the likelihood of soil run-off of substances such as pesticides into the water supply.

In the absence of any regulations, farmers will of course take what ever steps necessary to get the job done - small increases in the risk of environmental damage that has no or little impact on their own holdings is unlikely to deter them. Rightly or wrongly Government regulation is intended to achieve results that might not naturally fall within the farmer's best interest as he perceives it. I don't think any farmer would believe DEFRA or the EU exist to encourage him simply to farm more efficiently/effectively!

There are many instances in agriculture of over-regulation. The paperwork alone tests the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day for many farmers. But while your post reflects a welcome undercurrent of support for farmers amongst the general public, it also perhaps demonstrates a lack of appreciation of the complex problems facing farmers today.