Returns and the country With the countdown to the general election on, Helen Gregory interviewed the men who hope to run MAFF. Tim Yeo is confident of retaining his seat in the Commons for the fifth time, and equally confident in his party's ability to run an agriculture department ­ in whatever form it may take. The consummate Conservative politician is relishing his current high profile in the media spotlight and well versed in the subject of FMD after numerous TV interviews about how the government "mishandled" the crisis. "It should have looked back at the lessons learned in 1967," he reflects. "It was reluctant to acknowledge the seriousness of the outbreak and should have responded with more urgency and on a bigger scale.There's been confusion about who's in charge." Yeo believes, however, that the crisis is not the only issue threatening the future of agriculture and says the industry's growing dependence on imported food is a problem for growers which makes it harder to police the food chain. Yeo is also reticent in his praise of the Food Standards Agency and says it is still "early days". If in charge, he would give it another year to see how it does before reassessing the situation. "It needs to show that it is genuinely independent of ministers and that it can give authoritative advice to consumers. It needs to find ways of having more control over imported food." He does, though, support its call for clearer comprehensive labelling which he says is another important issue for consumers and producers. "We think current labelling can be ambiguous. There should be stricter laws regulating country of origin and method of production." Thorny issues such as GM and organic quotas are dealt with readily; the Conservatives are cautious about GM food, but as long as controlled tests prove that it is safe, and labelled, they have no problem with it being sold in Britain. Organic food is commended and encouraged. "That may mean making more conversion grants available or increasing the research budget, but we don't support artificial targets." Supermarkets, meanwhile, are applauded by the MP. "I respect their work ­ they're doing what consumers want by cutting prices." But he believes many people think the balance of power has swung too far in favour of the multiple supermarkets in the aftermath of the Competition Commission inquiry into the industry. "I know a lot of people were disappointed with the outcome and farmers thought it was a whitewash." Yeo agrees that their treatment of small suppliers is an issue and one which "the big people can take advantage of", but he believes the code of conduct will go some way to addressing this. "I'm very much in favour of getting people to stick to codes and we want to keep a pretty close eye on it." The party has also proposed that the Office of National Statistics should produce a regular comparison between farm gate prices and prices charged by supermarkets to keep the issues transparent. "We think that by throwing a bit of daylight on it, it would help improve the relationship," says Yeo. "We'd put an obligation on the ONS to do this." The party has already spoken to the major multiples about the initiative and he says they are largely in favour of it as they are aware that the public needs as much information as possible. Yeo advocates larger producer groups and more co-operation between producers in order to give them greater power, and hopes that more people will also team up and create a stronger voice for themselves. "It would be nice to take more pride in local food, and shortening the supply chain is a desirable effect. I support farmers' markets and wish we had the situation in the UK, as in France, where you go to a restaurant and they are proud to show you all the regional produce." He says food quality is generally improving but that it is getting harder to buy local produce, a situation which he says the multiple supermarkets are not helping. However, Yeo does not believe in random handouts for farmers and says they really want the chance to compete on equal terms ­ which has not been helped by the high exchange rate. "They want an end to unfair imports and over-regulation of the British industry. Farmers don't want subsidies ­ they want a level playing field." {{COVER FEATURE }}