Farming issues flagged up in Prince Charles’ ‘black spider letters’

The release of Prince Charles’ so-called black spider letters, published this week under the Freedom of Information Act, has revealed some of his views on issues affecting British agriculture. 

In a lengthy letter to then Prime Minister Tony Blair on 8 September 2004, Charles asks Blair to do more to back British produce. “So much depends on the consumer demanding British produce and I only wish that more could be done to encourage people to buy British and to understand that it is only with their support that British agriculture will survive. I know that European rules preclude the government from running a campaign to promote, solely, British produce but, for all that, it would be splendid if the government could find innovative ways to give the necessary lead.”

Charles then goes on to urge Blair to buy British food for the armed forces. “Public procurement of beef is an obvious area in which the government could make a substantial difference to the beef sector. For instance, I understand that the Ministry of Defence is now sourcing a proportion of beef from British suppliers, but no doubt more could be done.”

He criticises what he calls the “arm lock” retailers have over farmers, and calls for change in the whole food chain. “Unless United Kingdom co-operatives can grow sufficiently, the processors and retailers will continue to have the farmers in an arm lock and we will continue to shoot ourselves in the foot! You did kindly say that you would look at this and see if there was anything which could be done to help the OFT to take a wider view.”

In a separate letter to Blair on 24 February 2005, Charles lays out his concerns about bovine TB. “The most pressing and urgent problem is, without doubt, the rising numbers of TB cases is affecting 5,000 farms each year, 20,000 head of cattle are being slaughtered and the cost to the taxpayer is £100m annually. As you know, all the evidence is that TB is caused and spread by badgers.”

Charles urges Blair to look at implementing a badger cull. “I, for one, cannot understand how the ‘badger lobby’ seem to mind not at all about the slaughter of thousands of expensive cattle, and yet object to a managed cull of over-population of badgers — to me, this is intellectually dishonest.”

He repeatedly calls for a cut in farming red tape. “I also mention to you the sheer weight of the bureaucracy under which farmers are labouring at the moment as the new Single Farm Payment comes into force. It is causing much anxiety.”

Charles then expresses anxiety over the UK’s falling self-sufficiency in staple foods, such as meat and vegetables. “Recent trade figures showed a decline of 12% over the decade falling from 86% in 1994 to 74% in 2004 and only 64% for all food. On both environmental and economic grounds this has to be a worrying trend, let alone form the point of view of this country’s food security.”

Charles describes the behaviour of some retailers as “shocking” and says there are examples in contravention of the statutory Supermarket Code of Practices. “There is no doubt that the dominant position of the retailers is the single biggest issue affecting British farmers and the food chain, and if it is not dealt with, all the other good work which has been going on risks becoming virtually useless.”

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