Returns and the country With the countdown to the general election on, Helen Gregory interviewed the men who hope to run MAFF. A relaxed and affable Nick Brown admits that he's lasted a long time for an agriculture minister ­ three years ­ when many before him have barely managed 12 months. And this good humour goes some way to dispel rumours surrounding his possible ousting from MAFF ­ although he claims to be ignorant of his fate. Events prior to the foot and mouth outbreak have almost been eclipsed by the media commentary on his handling of the crisis, but the minister has been acknowledged for his work in uniting the food chain, something Brown says, MAFF should continue to build on. Brown has already come out in favour of a rural affairs department and defends MAFF's position as well placed to represent the sponsorship of the food industry. "We ought to put more emphasis on the move from supply side support to environmental and rural business support ­ taking money away from the direct payments made to farmers as production subsidies and putting every penny of that into the rural development regulation, and matching this with government funding. By 2005 we will spend 15% of total CAP payments on rural development rather than on production support, and that is right." Brown believes supporting farmers means underpinning public goods we buy, and not supporting and underpinning production. "It's not for the government to artificially enhance the price paid for the goods." And he thinks there are other ways of boosting the regional food industry, such as farmers' markets, specialist outlets and farming tourism. He is opposed to banning food and drink imports, something which he says the Conservatives would be keen to do, jeopardising thousands of jobs in the process. "They got involved in terrible feuds with the EU. We want to work with our trading partners and establish high standards of international trade and not try to use this food standards debate as a surrogate for protectionism and import controls. We can't treat trading partners unfairly." His sense of fairness extends to the work done with the supermakets, and a decision which obviously still irks, to establish a new code of conduct. "I believe retailers working with farmers got a long way with the voluntary code ­ I was proud of what we did in a short space of time. "We've gone a long way with the IGD and FDF and the big retailers who are committed to working with government and suppliers and putting right those things that are wrong or perceived to be wrong. The fact that we were able to work so well together during the fuel crisis speaks well of the department." Brown professes to have always found retailers very rational. He believes it's not unreasonable that retailers should ask for consistency of volume and supply. And he says he accepts they need to take into account what their consumers want. "If they say they don't like a product and don't think it's safe, it's reasonable for a retailer to take that into account." His power to the consumer' beliefs also extend to the public debate over GM. Shoppers should be free to make their own decisions on the basis of proper testing, clear labelling and extensive information. Brown backs the work of the Food Standards Agency and asserts his support of chairman Sir John Krebs. "He has dealt well with the important issues so far. What we really need is an intelligent debate about food policy which has to be led by scientists. The days when politicians said what was and wasn't safe for political reasons are over. The setting up of the FSA is the right decision and throws the work of this department into focus." But Brown adds that the FSA needs to consolidate the good start it has made in terms of public perception. He acknowledges that Britain has to recapture its reputation for having very high hygiene standards and restore its disease-free status after FMD. "There will be a post mortem and we will look at what we can do to prevent it happening again." But he insists the government is still on the right track, adding: "If I had my time over again I wouldn't do anything differently." Despite uncertainty over his future ministerial role, Brown should be assured of retaining his seat in the Newcastle East and Wallsend costituency where he has held a seat since 1983 and currently has a large majority. "I've also just been given the freedom of the city of Newcastle, the nicest thing anybody has ever given me." {{COVER FEATURE }}