Time to move from gloom

The European Commission this week confirmed its tough line on calls for additional funding for the dairy sector.

These calls came from the agriculture committee of the European parliament, which said that the voluntary milk supply reduction programme was meaningless without compensation. This view reflected the reality that the Commission never had much heart in this idea. It introduced it largely in response to pressure from France, but must have known from the outset that it would not work without Brussels or member state funding.

Making matters worse is that the Commission was able to argue that only 40 per cent of emergency funds provided last September have been distributed by member states. Hopes in Brussels are now pinned on the doubling of intervention proving effective at taking some of the pressure off the market. The Commission is also hoping that early signs of global dairy markets firming will become a trend, allowing it to escape pressure to do more to support the dairy sector.

If this proves to be the case farmers will be relieved, but there have been a lot of false dawns in the dairy sector over the past year. Balmoral Show always marks a waypoint in the agricultural calendar. It is a sobering thought that the story of last year’s show was the collapse in dairy prices compared to 2014 – and a year on that is still the focus of debate. The only difference now is that the contagion of weak commodity prices has spread to other parts of agriculture.

Hopefully the weakening of sterling against the euro will make UK agriculture more competitive. The impact is already being seen in a loss of market share for the Republic of Ireland in the UK, with the competitive edge its beef, lamb and dairy products have enjoyed because of the weak euro being lost to UK suppliers. This is the reality of currencies – and hopefully this will help lift the mood of the industry. The talk of Balmoral needs to move from gloom and doom to what might be done to make sure the industry does not end up living permanently with a short boom, long bust cycle in the dairy and other sectors.

The sector that tends to be forgotten, when it comes to sympathy for its problems, is grain. It had a bad 2015 and things are not looking any better for the current year. One problem it thought it had beaten was the question mark over the future of glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide and the active ingredient in Roundup. Now it has emerged that the Commission is responding to political pressure by seeking to fudge the decision. It is doing so to avoid conflict with member states that are pressing for a delay. The fudge is in a letter to national governments that includes a suggestion that the licensing period should be reduced from 15 to 10 years. This makes no sense, since if the product carries any carcinogenic risk, as its critics claim, then as much damage will be done in ten as in 15 years. That is simply an attempt to offer member states an elegant way to back down.

The real question is why the Commission believes this is necessary. It should be insisting that the glyphosate decision is based on science that can be defended, rather than on politics. If it presses ahead it might bring some other member states onto its side. But it will have raised unnecessary alarm with consumers over a product freely used in every other developed country. The resulting scenario is easy to predict. The Commission may still not get the qualified majority it needs and will ultimately have to force through a ten year approval. This will be used to raise concerns about glyphosate, with pressure for farmers to impose a voluntary ban on its use.

This reflects the enthusiasm in Brussels for consensus in decisions. Over glyphosate it is creating doubt where there should be none, and this will set an unwelcome precedent for the renewal of other product licences. It is also offering an assurance that if any doubts are raised in a review of glyphosate next year it will immediately withdraw the licence. Given that science can never prove a negative – that there is no risk – this is a fudge that could go very wrong, simply because the Commission lacks the courage to stick to objective science as a basis for decisions.