4 January 2001
Blair snubs Oxford talkshop – again

By Alistair Driver and Johann Tasker

TONY BLAIR has snubbed farm leaders by rejecting an invitation to address an international audience of industry experts at the Oxford Farming Conference.

It is the fourth time in as many years that Mr Blair has declined to speak at the two-day annual conference which opened on Thursday (04 January).

This year, however, his refusal is especially noticeable because it has left the event without a senior government speaker for the first time since 1993.

Agriculture minister Nick Brown and environment minister Michael Meacher have both chosen to address a rival conference on organic farming.

Oxford conference chairman Meryl Ward said she was “very disappointed”, but insisted the absence of any UK ministers did not weaken the event.

Mr Blair chaired the farm summit last year and expressed his support for farming, she said. “In an election year, we thought he would be keen to speak.”

Speakers at Oxford will include John Krebs, chairman of the Food Standards Agency, and Lord Haskins, chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force.

Papers will also be delivered by European trade commissioner Pascal Lamy, who is influential in moves to transform the sugar beet regime.

Mrs Ward said: “We are coming from the point of view that influences outside the UK are just as important as the national government.”

Meanwhile, Messrs Brown and Meacher will join Danish farm minister Ritt Bjerregaard at the 12th Soil Association conference on organic food and farming.

The three-day event begins on Friday (05 January). Mr Brown is likely to use it to underline the governments commitment to organic farming.

Simon Brenman, Soil Association agriculture development director, claimed that more than 450 delegates would attend the organic conference.

The Cirencester event, rather than Oxford, would be seen as the key arena for debating the future of sustainable agriculture, he added.

“The Soil Association conference builds the case for organic food and farming as a practical solution to the crisis facing British agriculture.

Consumer support for pesticides, intensive livestock systems, and GM technology has never been lower and we offer the nation a genuine alternative.”