Is Ashton up to the trade job?

THE International Trade Committee on which I sit was this month itself the victim of an unplanned transaction following Gordon Brown's cabinet reshuffle.

Robert Sturdy MEP

THE International Trade Committee on which I sit was this month itself the victim of an unplanned transaction following Gordon Brown's cabinet reshuffle. The unexpected joker in the pack was the recall of Peter Mandelson from Brussels to Westminster to take up the post of Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, in exchange for Baroness Ashton of Holland as his replacement.

By choosing her, instead of the more qualified Geoff Hoon or Patricia Hewitt, thereby avoiding what might have proven to be a tricky by-election, the Prime Minister has shown that he does not value all the hard work carried out over the last few months by the Trade Commission. If we lose our momentum here, it could reflect badly on Britain and might lead to us losing the highly prized trade portfolio in the Commission reshuffle due next year.

MEPs will today question Baroness Ashton's grasp of her brief. This is a vital opportunity for MEPs to ensure she has the required level of competence as this demanding role deals with very delicate international trade negotiations and requires a firm, but expert, hand. She will be given a very fair hearing and be questioned by cross-party MEPs and I look forward to leading the parliamentary group at this meeting.

ANOTHER issue I am involved with is the Plants Protection Products Directive concerning the use of pesticides, of which an amended report is expected to be voted on by the end of 2008. In June this year, the Agriculture Council adopted a political agreement on the revision of the PPPD which could see a ban of up to 80% of pesticides currently being used.

As always, I will continue to fight against unnecessary proposals, and in this case my colleagues and I are extremely concerned that if certain proposals were adopted, wheat and potato yields would drop by around 30%.

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The loss of just 25% of agrichemicals would be a disastrous blow to our agricultural communities at a time when farmers are facing ever-increasing production costs, bureaucratic burdens and global challenges. I favour a risk-based system, which ensures that a full and complete evaluation of all the pesticide's properties, including mitigating circumstances, based on sound scientific evidence and the effect they have on the environment and public health are taken into account. The key towards the sustainable use of pesticides lies in achieving risk reduction. All actions directed to this aim should be economically and ecologically viable to reach a fully sustainable agricultural community and secured food production in Europe.

The initial proposals gave recognition to farmer's professional knowledge, experience and expertise in the field of crop, soil and pesticide management and I will again be fighting to protect this confidence and avoid any additional burden being placed on the agricultural community. In my opinion, agrichemicals have a part to play in modern agriculture.

They are essential to maximise crop yields, which has never been more crucial than now with rising food prices and concerns about future food security. They also minimize labour input and improve the overall quality of crops enabling UK farmers to remain competitive in the face of harsh market conditions.