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WORLD FARMERS MEET

REPORTER: NICK LAZAREDES

This group of men is discussing how best to feed the world.

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Collectively, they represent some of the most powerful voices in world agriculture. But they are deeply divided. Australia wants freer access to European markets, but Europe continues to cling to protectionist subsidies and quotas. No more so than in Britain, where foot-and-mouth disease is still extracting a heavy toll.

BEN GILL, PRESIDENT, UK FARMERS UNION: Am I going to get it? Am I going to get it? It`s like a torture, like a drip in the night just permeating the brain all the time of worry, worry, worry – what is the future? Is there a future for me?

Ben Gill knows all too well the feeling of helplessness. As Britain`s elected farm leader, he`s watched the virtual disintegration of entire industries in a few short months, as the foot-and-mouth funeral pyres burn steadily across the country. As the forensic probe continues in Britain to pinpoint the cause of the latest outbreak, Ben Gill this week put a sinister new spin on the epidemic. He says it`s possible the disease was deliberately spread by a new breed of eco-terrorists.

BEN GILL: Tell me it`s a coincidence, isn`t it – that in Britain we have two outbreaks of diseases we haven`t had for a long time within a matter of months. Both of an Asian type, both aimed at our industries in a very destructive way. How did they get into the country? It`s an unknown, and it`s most bizarre. The suggestion has been made – not by me, by others – that could this be a form of eco-terrorism from the very clear vandalistic and terrorist approach that now exists in some of the groups?

Foot-and-mouth was the final nail in the coffin for European consumer trust in food, and there are growing calls for radical agricultural reform and a return to a greener style of farming. Following the Second World War, European agriculture was firmly focused on the task of feeding millions. It led to the establishment of intensive factory-style farms. In the decades that followed, Europe`s Common Agricultural Policy encouraged the trend to mass production through subsidies and tariff protection. Now European consumers blame intensive farming for foot-and-mouth, as well as mad cow disease, or BSE.

BEN GILL: Now you ask them what they mean by that, they don`t know. You ask them, what is industrial farming? “That thing that caused foot-and-mouth.” OK, you say, Well, it`s affected sheep the worst, are they intensive industrial. It`s a nonsense.

NOEL DEVISCH, PRESIDENT, BELGIUM FARMERS UNION: Don`t blame the system on the diseases we had in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The link should not be made because there is no link.

Belgium`s farm President Noel Devisch also rejects the notion that European farmers have caused their own suffering.

NOEL DEVISCH: We must tackle the problems of the environment, but not throw away the protection system, because there is no alternative, but I accept that not only here, but especially in my own country, the whole society is now objecting to the system because they see these burning animals in England, and they see these mass graves of lamb and that`s why they object.

But in one quarter of Europe, the push for radical change to farming techniques is winning consumer support, and votes. Germany`s new Agriculture Minister, Renate Kunast, recently called for a move away from intensive farming.

NOEL DEVISCH: They go a simplified road, because the German policy and the German minister is too much on emotion and too much trying to give quick answers to a very, very complicated issue, which has to be tackled by different means, by different policies.

Whilst European delegates have been preoccupied with animal health and husbandry, Australian farmers have wasted no time in challenging what they describe as an obscene system of subsidies and quotas, which cost Australian agriculture dearly.

TIM FISCHER, FORMER DEPUTY PM: Those countries that protect our agriculture, I submit pay a high price, and the burden falls heaviest on those in society who are least able to pay.

Former Deputy PM, now backbencher Tim Fisher reckons it`s time to challenge Europe by questioning their policy of multifunctionality, a policy which aims to maintain cultural and social values unrelated to agriculture.

TIM FISCHER: Now, let`s strip this away for what it really is. It is a form of direct farm subsidy with a degree of disguise that the community`s overall interests are being served.

NOEL DEVISCH: It is more function than just producing food, it maintains the rural areas, it creates rural employment. It looks after the environment.

GRAHAM BLIGHT, AUSTRALIAN FARMERS REPRESENTATIVE: We have a long way to go. People have to understand, you`ll never ever see Europe without subsidised agriculture.

The United States has also demonstrated a deep reluctance to reduce protectionist trade barriers and farm subsidies. Delegates here were shocked, when just days ago, the US pulled out of the international federation of agricultural producers signalling a move forwards isolationist protectionism.

GRAHAM BLIGHT: Doing it at a time when they`re calling for more subsidies, they`re doing it at a time when they`re now suggesting they might even try and roll back the lamb decision that we`ve won at the WTO. We`re all saying, “Well, you know boys, what`s this free trade stuff you talk about?” You`ve got to start realising that every time you do that, you`re creating an integrity gap between America and the rest of the world.

In Brussels overnight, an EC farm spokesman reiterated that Australian agricultural quotas will not be increased. That`s despite a growing demand for clean, disease-free, organic produce.

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