New EU rules could hit Norfolk farmers for millions

The common agricultural policy was introduced in response to severe food shortages experienced across Europe in the wake of World War II.

The CAP, as it is known, has seen billions of pounds from EU coffers subsidising European farming. But as food became more plentiful and the continent's economic output grew the policy has been groping around for a new purpose.

Today there is a drive for the CAP to be used to encourage farmers to be more environmentally friendly and it is to that end that the EU commission is drafting its current reforms.

There is still a negotiation process underway before finalised reforms are introduced from October 2014, but the current proposals have raised deep concerns amongst farming groups and politicians in the UK.

The problem is British faming already sees itself as far more environmentally friendly than most of the rest of Europe.

Agricultural groups argue that the new EU regulation in its current form would only serve to impose a huge extra burden – just one of the three central changes proposed could see farmers in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire hit for �31m a year.

The revelation comes as Parliament's environment, food and rural affairs select committee today publishes a report calling on the government to negotiate a better deal for UK farmers, including opt-outs from parts of the reform.

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Committee chair Anne McIntosh said: 'As they currently stand, the commission's proposals to green the CAP would hurt UK farmers, consumers and our countryside. They will reduce food security by taking land out of production and are likely to impact badly on our environment.

'It's a nonsense to think that farmers from Finland to Sicily should be tied to the same narrow prescriptive rules. One-size-fits all regulation cannot work across the range of environments found in Europe.'

There are three central parts to the commission's current reform plan; one that farmers should set aside 7pc of their land for so-called ecological focus areas (EFAs) in which wildlife and plant habitats might be promoted.

Another part relates to crop diversity, stating farmers should grow at least three different crops, and a third part would see farmers obliged to maintain areas of grassland.

In the UK however six million hectares of land is already covered by some 58,000 voluntary agreements between British farms and the government, called 'agri-environment schemes', which are designed to promote natural habitats.

It is unclear whether these areas of land would be counted under the EU's EFA policy. Either way it appears that EFAs will mean land being removed from production, reducing farm income and yield.

Rachel Carrington is senior policy advisor at East Anglia National Farmers' Union. She said: 'At the moment we are trying to raise the profile of crop production and there is a pressure to increase yields.

'But if you are talking about taking 7pc of land out of production with EFAs it goes completely against all of that. How are we supposed to feed the rapidly increasing population in the future?'

Today's committee report drew on an analysis from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board showing that as a result of EFAs the average gross margin of a cropping farm could fall by up to �48 per hectare of land.

Taking into account the hectarage of arable farming land in Norfolk, that would mean a �12.7m annual loss to the county's agricultural economy, with Suffolk losing �9.5m and Cambridgeshire, �8.7m.

Meanwhile the EU's proposed crop diversification policy would require a farmer with more than three hectares of land to cultivate at least three different crops, none of which covered less than 5pc of the land. Meanwhile the main crop should not cover more than 70pc.

Again groups in the UK complain there are already effective crop rotation techniques used here and that further regulation would impose an unnecessary financial burden.

Ms Carrington said: 'The three crop policy was put in because of mono-cropping in eastern Germany, where there are huge great areas covered in crops of maize, but we don't have that problem here.

'If you look across an area there is a huge diversity of crops, but when you get down to individual farm level it changes. Everyone, even dairy farms which might grow grass and a little bit of maize, would now have to grow three crops.

'They would have to grow them regardless of what is wanted by the market. Meanwhile it would require a lot of extra work and resources.'

She said that while officials hammered out details, the NFU feared the bigger picture of ensuring farms were environmentally friendly would be lost.

Today's select committee report concludes that it is difficult to assess the impact of the final requirement of the draft reform, that farmers maintain areas of grassland, because it lacks detail. But it does say it could potentially see further land taken out of production.

Conservative South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon said: 'The thing we have to remember about the EU is that it employs lots of high powered civil servants who wouldn't have a job if they didn't have any legislation to draft.

'I remember the last major reform of CAP and the major reform before that and each time I think to myself why don't they just bog off and let people get on with running a business to produce food on a planet that hasn't got enough.

'The idea that in that situation they are thinking of reducing the hectarage of land in production is lunacy. Given current economic problems it is double lunacy.'

However a government spokesman said the UK did want significant CAP reform so that over the long term farming was not reliant on subsidies.

He added that the CAP should be used to reward benefits farmers provide for wildlife and the landscape that are not rewarded by the market.

He said ministers were hopeful the commission would allow for greater flexibility in the proposed reforms.

'We are working hard to negotiate a more environmentally friendly CAP which works for the UK's farmers and uses taxpayers' money more effectively – allowing more production at less cost to the environment,' he said.

'We're glad the commission is starting to change its position on greening, but we want a more flexible approach that would allow member states to green the CAP in a way that works best for them.'

Meanwhile Ms McIntosh explained that she was also hopeful the commission could be talked around and urged the government to keep working towards that end.

She said: 'This should be a good be moment to invite the EU to catch up with what we are doing rather than imposing more regulation.'