from Blair again
By Alistair Driver
and Johann Tasker
PRIME MINISTER 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 finishes today (Fri). 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.
Farm minister Nick Brown and environment minister Michael Meacher – who were not invited speak at Oxford – have both chosen instead to address a rival conference on organic farming held by the Soil Association at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester.
Oxford conference chairman Meryl Ward said: "Most delegates would have been able to predict what would be in Nick Browns speech. We invited Tony Blair after he chaired the farm summit last year and expressed his support for farming. In an election year, we thought he would be keen to speak, so we are very disappointed."
Mrs Ward insisted the absence of any UK government representative did not weaken what was still a prestigious event. Other speakers include John Krebs, chairman of the Food Standards Agency, and Lord Haskins, the government adviser whose recent report criticised the amount of red tape in farming.
Papers will also be delivered by European trade commissioner Pascal Lamy, who is influential in moves to transform the sugar beet regime, and Canadian farm minister Lyle Vanclief. 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 to address delegates at the 12th Soil Association national conference on organic food and farming. The three-day event ends on Sunday (Jan 7). 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, making it more popular than the Oxford. 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 the use of pesticides, intensive livestock systems, and GM technology has never been lower and we are offering the nation a genuine alternative."
• Conferences, pages 10,11