Reform of the system of EU farming subsidies needs to protect producers from wildly fluctuating prices, a key Brussels politician has warned.
The controversial Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is to be radically overhauled after 2013, meaning radical changes to vital handouts to hundreds of farmers in the Westcountry.
The Labour Party yesterday hosted a summit in the House of Commons attended by Italian MEP Paolo de Castro, chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.
He is likely to play a pivotal role in deciding the future shape of the policy as for the first time the Council of Ministers – from each of 27 EU member states – and MEPs that sit in the European Parliament must reach a joint decision.
Currently close to £50 billion of EU money is poured into European agriculture annually – 70 per cent of which is spent on direct payments.
Mr de Castro said the reforms should make the system less bureaucratic and link payments to the market price of food and commodities, and perhaps introduce insurance to guard farmers from price peaks and troughs.
He said: "We need to overcome the price volatility. It is impossible to stay alive in this sector when the price of milk goes up from 45 cents to 90 cents and then up again. The farmers cannot manage."
Extreme weather, such as the ongoing drought in the US, affects major crops and drives up prices.
"We need some new market measures," he said.
Mr de Castro also warned over farmers producing enough food to feed a spiralling global population, which needed to be reflected in the reforms.
Concern over the European Commission's proposals for reform has prompted more than 7,000 amendments from MEPs, meaning there are "problems" with the first draft, Mr de Castro said.
The most contentious idea on the table is to force farmers to set aside 7% of their land for environmental measures, rather than food production, or lose money.
MEPs from both Mr de Castro's Democratic Party and Labour are members of the European Parliament's Socialist and Democrat Group. The Italian politician, a former agriculture minister, met Labour leader Ed Miliband in Westminster yesterday.
He said it was important left-wing parties were informing the debate on farming as they have previously been "not very passionate about agriculture".
Mr de Castro said: "Now it is different. Agriculture faces big challenges – food security and climate change, not just the problem of farmers.
"Europe can apply the new policy to give the answer to the problem of food scarcity. This scarcity means we need to produce more and pollute less. This is important for all citizens, not just the farmers."
Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh said: "The CAP accounts for £3.7 billion of British taxpayers' money – so it's very important we have a forum to discuss what is going on. It's almost the equivalent of a penny on income tax for every taxpayer."
The Government has signalled its intention to eventually wean farmers off subsidies altogether.