Archive Article: 2002/06/22 - Farmers Weekly

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Archive Article: 2002/06/22

22 June 2002

THE wheat is now in flower, with cool rainy weather offering near-perfect conditions for grain fusarium. We last had a problem with this in 1998 when conditions at flowering were almost exactly the same as they are now. Of course the danger can be avoided to a certain extent by growing more resistant wheat varieties. But these are not the high yielders that we want to grow. Grain fusarium is always a worry but perhaps more so now because of the penalties it brings in a market where wheat prices this summer could be around k20/t (£13/t) below even last years lows.

Naturally, millers and merchants are now paying even more attention to this aspect. The atmosphere here in Germany has been highly charged by the latest food scandal, that of the long-banned herbicide Nitrofen being found in organically grown feed wheat. That discovery is now being given the same massive media attention as the BSE crisis here two years ago. Then, it was the conventional farmers that suffered. Now, it appears that the organic sector is going to get most of the attention.

Both "scandals" are massive media events. Neither BSE nor Nitrofen has led to deaths here in Germany, as far as I know. But theres been enormous economic damage.

While we conventional farmers were the bad guys following BSE and the Minister of Agriculture used the disaster to engineer more support for organic production with extra money and big publicity campaigns, the bio boys now have their own scandal. But theres little room nowadays for Schadenfreude.

The lesson to be learned is surely that the basic production method is not the important thing. Instead, a common high standard of food and feed safety is required and everyone in the business should be working towards this goal…a standard of full traceability and assured quality allowing potential scandals to be nipped in the bud and not discovered when theyve already developed into massive problems.

In this context the latest Nitrofen disaster has revealed a fundamental problem within the organic farming philosophy: how can a concept that idealises, and wishes to retain, "Old MacDonald-type" small-structured and diversified farming, hope to cope with the obvious requirements of assured quality food production including management of high and consistent standards through large scale control?

Talking of the biological revolution, wasnt it truly ironic that Prince Charles was over here as a prominent representative of the organic farming movement in Britain right in the middle of the Nitrofen scandal? But even with that background, the visit, and therefore the ecological movement, got the sort of favourable media coverage in the German press that the conventional farming sector can only dream about nowadays. No less than two cabinet ministers accompanied the Prince to organic institutes and at least one bio-farm. Theres little doubt that, by now, the term organic farming is firmly linked with the British way of life for millions of television viewers here.

Surely nows the time for Britains efficient conventional farmers – Crops readers for instance – to rally round and send an equally prominent user of sprayers and fertiliser spreaders over here to set the picture straight and do something for the image of the vast majority of British growers.

And while were on about public image, the farming sector here must give much more consideration to crop quality assurance schemes, I believe. Their role in bolstering public confidence in the food production chain would seem obvious.

In my mind we have a lot to learn about quality assurance. After all, among many other things, quality assurance schemes on farms control grain storage facilities, and we now know that the Nitrofen scandal started off with a contaminated grain store.

We are starting to see the beginnings of a big change, though. There will be a move towards national quality assurance, a development that will initially bring many problems to individual farms. And if we – both organic and conventional farmers – fail to support this movement, if we fail to recognise food safety as a competitive tool and cease to regard it as simply a control, then therell be no shortage of farmers in Denmark, France and Britain to take our place as partners in the European food chain.

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Archive Article: 2002/06/22

22 June 2002

THERES been a flurry of high profile activity on the subject of genetically modified crops over the last couple of weeks. Tony Blair signalled his strong support for the science behind GM plants and their commercial introduction in the UK, in a major strategic policy lecture delivered to the Royal Society. Margaret Beckett called for an informed public debate on the issues, primarily because the UKs three-year field trials programme will be concluded with the publication of the data, results and conclusions next year.

Sadly, the poor docudrama Fields of Gold by Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, and campaigning drama writer Rolan Bennett, confuses rather than contributes to informed debate. Allegedly based on accurate science, the whole piece was riddled with scientific inaccuracies that will have done nothing to inform the public, even in an entertainment format, of the issues surrounding GM crops.

For too long the hostile, anti-GM crops agenda has been dominated by those with fervent axes to grind, and long-term goals that are more political than relevant to agricultural sciences, food production, real consumer interests, or Third World country requirements. We have come to expect the knee-jerk opposition to valid technological developments, but fortunately the quiet didactic and measured treatment by various groups, such as CropGen, has begun to modify public perceptions and understanding in favour of a careful, fully regulated introduction of GM crops here, elsewhere in the first world and, crucially, in Third World small scale agricultural economies.

Wisely, Rusbridger and Bennett sought advice from a reputable source to authenticate the science in their fictional story. Foolishly they ignored the advice, to such an extent that Dr Mark Tester, a highly informed Cambridge plant molecular biologist, and the plays scientific adviser, felt compelled to distance himself from a drama, which in the words of Lord May, the president of the Royal Society, "peddles ludicrous lies on GM". Genetic modification cannot be done in a household food mixer in a farmhouse kitchen. Rusbridger claimed that it was based on received scientific advice, but the BBC, on Rusbridgers behalf, refused to say whos advice was used, and it is reasonable to conclude that there was no one else other Tester who disowned the piece before it was broadcast.

This play was not a valid, serious contribution to the debate. It was a hysterical mish-mash of pseudo-science, but no doubt the general public will be seduced into thinking that if the BBC sanctions broadcasting it, it must be right. The BBC has a responsibility to treat major public issues seriously. At best this was science fiction of the "X-files" variety masquerading as accurate science. What a pity Rusbridger did not heed the advice of his fictional newspaper editor in Fields of Gold who insisted on 100% accuracy on the facts his reporter was claiming for the dangers of GM.

Becketts public debate has got off to a poor start thanks to the shortcomings of Fields of Gold. We are hoping for better things from the BBC2 documentary Bitter Harvest to be broadcast on Sunday nights. In the meantime much of the rest of the world is rapidly stealing a march on the UK, introducing novel GM-based crops which contribute to solving many different factors which lower agricultural productivity, or effecting changes which will improve environmental quality. No-one wants an unregulated, laissez-faire approach, and a sensible public debate should help convince sceptical British public opinion that there is a place for GM crop technology in modern British agriculture.

But please let it be informed not irrational, sober not motivated by narrow political agendas, and above all factually correct.

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Archive Article: 2002/06/22

22 June 2002

Down, but not out…

IT WAS with some foreboding that the Crops team made its pilgrimage to the Lincs Cereals 2002 event. It wasnt the grey skies we were worried about. It was the mood of an industry so shaken by financial pressures, by FMD, by the strong pound, by competition from ridiculously cheap East European grain, and by lack of political and public support.

What we found there bears witness to the resilience of British farming. The mood was upbeat, positive, even – dare we say it – optimistic. We did a straw poll of those manning the stands to confirm our instincts. Yes; deals were being done, orders being taken for fertiliser, seed and machinery. Farming is clearly fighting back.

There is a future for our industry, and the activity at Cereals 2002 reflects that. There were 8,000 visitors through the gate on the first day – a record. All these visitors were keen to find out how to tackle the challenges ahead. There were no time-wasters. The years gap served to highlight how important these gatherings are as a talking shop, a chance to meet and share ideas with others.

Next summer its back to Cambridgeshire, to Velcourts Vine Farm at Wendy, near Royston. Lets look forward with confidence.

Green views on IACS

ONE of the key recommendations in Sir Don Currys report on farmings future was the idea that environmental considerations should be built into the basic IACS scheme. No doubt Sir Don was not expecting immediate action – that would have been miraculous indeed – but DEFRA did do something. It started a review of the agri-environment schemes in England.

Interested parties have been asked for their views, and the NFU has given the idea a thumbs up. Now, DEFRA hasnt asked Crops for its opinion – yet. But that hasnt stopped us in the past, and wont stop us now. At the moment, only 850,000ha are in agri-environment schemes of one sort or another. By including basic agri-environmental requirements as part of IACS, that "green" area would rise, to cover virtually all farmed land in England.

We believe that professional growers are already acting as responsible stewards of the countryside. But many would want to do more, particularly if it were made economically worthwhile, via an IACS premium payment. These growers may have been among the many who were turned down for Countryside Stewardship due to the scant pot of grant funding.

Building environmental considerations into IACS would save costs, save duplication of paperwork and improve standards. Some might worry that greening IACS would create yet more paperwork and add extra restrictions onto an over-burdened industry. We believe this attitude is short sighted. The future is green, and our industry should work with this idea to build a profitable agriculture, which earns public admiration.

Farmers take their case abroad

TIME was when protesting farmers waving placards were always the French. Whether it was burning lamb carcasses, or lining the Champs Elysees with wheat, those French knew how to stamp their wooden sabots, wave their placards and gesticulate to good effect.

Now it seems we are adopting French ways. NFU deputy president Tim Bennett joined the protestors at a CAP demonstration in Strasbourg outside the European parliament building this month. He was in a line-up of angry, worried farmers from all over the EU, united in their concern about the mid-term review of the CAP – particularly in the wake of the news of increased agricultural support in the US.

The demonstration pre-empts the publication of Franz Fischlers CAP reform, expected out in July. Its a worthwhile gesture of support, Tim – but is it too little, too late?

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