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Howard's End: One Size Does Not fit All

In the face of the biggest crisis for agriculture coming from the outbreaks of BSE and foot and mouth disease, the European Commissioner for Agriculture has admitted publicly for the first time that its Common Agricultural Policy, founded in 1962, are "not a good basis for future-oriented policy." There are lessons for New Zealand John Howard writes.

Large numbers of Britons and Europeans are now blaming Europe's Common Agricultural Policy for the wholesale crisis in the Continent's agriculture, citing policies which led to much larger regionally-based abattoirs which handle lots of animals from many different countries as the main cause of the disease outbreaks.

EU Agricultural Commissioner, Franz Fischler, admitted Friday that Europe now faces the biggest crisis ever in the agriculture sector and has admitted publicly that its CAP was "not a good basis for future-oriented agriculture policy."

You only have to speak to Bryan George, a butcher in the Welsh town of Talgarth, to confirm what many Europeans are now saying and feeling.

Mr George is one of the rare butcher's left in Britain who is still able to slaughter his own meat which he has been doing for half a century. Most others were wiped out in the mid-Nineties when agricultural policy changes were implemented.

"George the Meat", personally knows every producer and the origins and quality of every cut of meat he sells. He, and his customers, have proved the quality and the breeding methods by walking the local fields where the cattle, sheep and pigs are reared. He buys all his animals within a 20 kilometre radius of his shop and this transparency of meat quality and the source keeps his customers happy and him in business.

European supermarkets are finally adding consumer information to meat labels about meat source, quality, feed and breeding methods.

But Mr George already knows the pedigree of every piece of meat he sells and he can point to a piece and tell a customer exactly where it came from right down to the type of farming methods used by the producer. And his customers are able to check what he says because he only buys from local producers and slaughters the animals in his own small abattoir - which customers are also welcome to see.

He, and an increasing number of Europeans, say Europe's Common Agricultural Policy, which allows the free movement of animals around the Continent, has mainly contributed to the spread of diseases.

Mr George cites the 1967 epidemic of foot and mouth disease. "This was confined to the North-west of Britain because there was no wide-spread movement of animals."

He says in 1995 Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food officials came like sergeant majors with clipboards. They strode into our shop just before Christmas and one of them looked around and said, 'You can forget about this place.'

"Many small family butchers with their own abattoirs didn't want to put up with that kind of thing, couldn't afford the increased expense and the red tape involved so they closed and now we have these problems. It was entirely foreseeable," Mr George said.

Effectively, Europe's agricultural policies put the small guy out of business in favour of the big operator. It was just like a subsidy to the big operator when new CAP rules eliminated the competition, As old John D. Rockefeller said, "Competition is a sin."

On a small 11-hectare goat farm on the Belgian coast, Renaat and Katrian Devreese are also facing ruin.

With 12 of their goats imported from Britain last month, the couple have been ordered to destroy all 160 of their animals as alarm spreads about the foot and mouth outbreak. There's is a small organic farm producing goat's milk cheese and ought to be prospering.

But the disease that has spread rapidly has meant that 15 years of work to make the business viable is all down the drain. Mr Devreese says, " This is the end of the line, we will lose our farm and our livelihood."

This personal catastrophe for this one farmer is symptomatic of a wholesale crisis for European agriculture with the central pillar of its 40-year-old Common Agricultural Policy beginning to crumble.

All of which led me to think about New Zealand's agricultural policies.

I know of small butchers in country areas who, for decades, operated their own shop and small abattoir - customers were happy with the quality and the butchers remained in business. We are not talking about some back-yard operation here, but a small local abattoir run by a qualified butcher who customers knew and could see in operation.

Then, along came the bureaucrats with their one-size-fits-all rules, and everything changed. The red tape and increased costs, which many saw as unnecessary, put them out of business. The big guy prospered while the little bloke goes broke.

Now the meat we purchase can come from abattoir's hundreds of kilometres away and sometimes from across the other side of the world.

Consumers mostly go to the supermarket to buy their meat from an unknown source with the pre-packaged meat sometimes resting under a red light to make it look more attractive. In the US, the large supermarket chains are even getting rid of their in-house butchery's and are relying totally on packaged meat brought in from elsewhere.

In New Zealand, can't we find a more middle ground where consumers originally had some assurances from their local butcher about the source of the product, quality, feed type used, and breeding, rather than the present one-size-fits-all policies?

Alarmingly, the agricultural policies of New Zealand appear to be similar to the now debunked Common Agricultural Policy of Europe. And don't we import meat from other countries?

So how will New Zealand politicians explain our agricultural policies to the people if an outbreak of foot and mouth or similar disease ever occurs in New Zealand?

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