Britain’s young farmers should embrace the challenge of being ‘storm riders’ who keep ahead of the food crisis predicted in 20 years’ time, according to Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Defra. In her inaugural speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, held last week, she continually used the phrase ‘perfect storm’ as an analogy for scientists’ forecast of a food cataclysm in 2030 brought on by water shortages, climate change and population growth.

The immediate challenge, however, is the culture shift towards farming without subsidies. Mrs Spelman promised that British politicians will participate robustly in reforming the EU Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) for 2013, and added that she was committed to continuing to secure financial reward for farmers who look after the environment. She described the ‘pro-tectionism’ under current CAP policy by certain EU member states as ‘morally wrong’ and pledged to support France in stopping export bans, such as the one last year in Russia that caused wheat prices to rocket.

Mrs Spelman described early plans for CAP reform as lacking in ambition. ‘We can be more positive, more confident,’ she said. ‘Rising global demand for food and rising food prices make it possible to reduce subsidies and plan for their abolition. It’s certainly something the farmers I know want to see happen. Also, we should encourage innovation and provide help with environmental measures. Our taxpayers have every right to expect other public goods for the subsidies they pay.’

More than one speaker referred to ‘environmentalists “hijacking” farming policy over food production’. George Lyon, a Liberal-Democrat MEP, said: ‘Sustainability is not about low-output, low-input farming nor organic production. They both have a role to play, but they are most certainly not the answer to meeting the challenge of doubling food demand.’ He predicted that the major arguments on CAP reform would be liberalisation versus market regulation and direct payments versus rural development, and said that European farmers were being left behind as GM ‘becomes the norm around the rest of the world’.

Jim McCarthy, an Irish farmer with international interests, commented: ‘The justification for our subsidy has changed completely. The number-one priority is to protect the environment and maintain the traditional appearance of the countryside. Last on the list is the farmer. Farm productivity has been completely abandoned. With limits on fertiliser usage and the banning of GM crops… European agriculture is doomed to become a second-rate agriculture.’