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PETER FROST is appalled as in yet another policy sleight of hand the Con-Dems give their farmer friends EU funds earmarked for vital environmental work to restore meadows

A staggering 97 per cent of our flower-rich grassland and meadows have disappeared since the 1930s. With them has gone an amazing and valuable resource of both biodiversity and beauty.

Wildflower meadows supported all kinds of bees and many other pollinating insects which play a major part in pollinating crops, fruits and vegetables.

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It isn’t surprising that, with the decline of wild flowers, those important pollinating populations have drastically dwindled as well.

Both flower seeds and the small insects fed a food chain that supported a huge spectrum of wildlife from small mammals to songbirds and thus larger predators.

The loss of these wildflower meadows replaced by mono-cultures and intense farming was a worldwide phenomenon and the European community resolved to make funding available to help solve the problem.

Now in one of the worst examples of greenwash we have seen from the Con-Dem coalition — the government David Cameron and Nick Clegg promised would be “the greenest in history” — European funding that was intended to fund a reversal in wildflower decline will be spent by already rich farmers to grow cash crops.

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The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) grants, designed specifically to protect the countryside, have been controversially switched to pay England’s already rich farmers to grow beans and peas.

The EU’s new rules on subsidies oblige farmers to ensure that some of their land supports wild plants and animals. However, during recent negotiations, farmers watered down the policy so that planting crops that improve soil may be classified as helping wildlife.

Many wildlife campaigners and organisations are horrified at this blatant putting of farmer’s profits ahead of the protection of the environment.

England’s farmers found it easy to persuade the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that their businesses were more important than the long-term good of the land.

Defra announced that planting peas and beans in so-called Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) will qualify for full grants. Its spokesperson said: “We have included nitrogen fixing crops as an EFA because we want farmers to have as much flexibility as possible so they can focus on growing British food.”

Not surprisingly the National Union of Farmers (NUF) pronounced the measures “very positive for the environment.”

Martin Harper of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) had a differing view: “The government has squandered this opportunity and is handing out £11 billion to the farming industry in England and expecting very, very little in return.”

Stephen Trotter of The Wildlife Trusts condemned the decision to allow grants for cultivation of peas and beans: “Nitrogen-fixing crops improve the soil but don’t help wildlife at all,” he said.

“This is bizarre. It gets more outrageous every minute I think about it. It seems that farmers just want public funds with no strings attached.”

Even a group of agricultural experts working for the European Commission reported recently that the EU had failed in its attempt to make the CAP more green and to give value to taxpayers and safeguard the countryside.

Their report said that member states would need to introduce their own strong discretionary policies if they wanted to protect wildlife.

Cameron, Clegg and the Con-Dem cabinet and environment ministers had other ideas. They had already prepared the ground with a consistent campaign to undermine Defra and its departments like Natural England bodies that were set up to protect the environment. 

Instead Defra and Natural England have become the champions, not of the countryside, but of those who kill birds of prey to protect posh game shoots, of rich, often multinational, landowning corporations, the international agribusiness and even the  rapacious supermarkets.

An increasingly toothless Defra no longer does the job of protecting our natural environment but rather makes life easier for anybody hell-bent on putting profit ahead of the long-term welfare of this green and pleasant land.

Every household in Britain pays £400 a year towards the subsidies for farmers. We also all pay our share in increasing food prices. Isn’t it about time we saw something in return for our money? And I don’t mean just a pile of beans.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 11 July 2014

On the Arran Islands off the west coast of Ireland they still have hay meadows full of wildflowers and they still cut the hay by hand. 

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