26 October 2001

Conflicts a threat to future

By Adrienne Francis

RURAL recovery co-ordinator Lord Haskins has warned that conflict between farmers and environmentalists threatens the future of the countryside.

Farmers are in danger of taking adversarial viewpoints which may alienate other sections of society, he said. "There must be a compelling reason for support if farming is going to continue. People must be welcomed into the countryside and there must be policy based on rural co-operation, not condemnation."

The Labour peer was responding to a report by Nuffield scholar Guy Smith, an Essex farmer who has been studying the way British agriculture is portrayed in the media. Mr Smiths recommendations, which call for a £2m public relations unit to promote farmers, were unveiled in London on Oct 23.

Mr Smith said many people had seen foot-and-mouth as evidence of something fundamentally awry with farming. Farming must be able to portray itself as clean and caring producer of wholesome food. Yet farmers were wrestling with a number of problems while coming under increasing scrutiny.

A well-financed public relations unit should be set up using cross-industry funding to counter negative stories about agriculture, said Mr Smith. He added: "The time has come for a fundamental rethink as to how farmers can project a positive image. We need new thinking and new strategies."

Agriculture was increasingly seen by the public as a burden rather than an asset and farmers were under a permanent spotlight, he said. But one of the reasons farmers felt the media was biased was because producers responded too slowly to bad news stories about the industry.

Lord Haskins said the report was a masterful polemic with a touch of paranoia. "We have to stimulate an environment for change. People have got to come together, more than we have done in the past. We need a non-evangelical approach to farming, with a rational and sustainable framework."

Jim Reed, chief executive of the farm supply chain initiative UKASTA, questioned whether a cross-section voice for agriculture would be successful. "Everyone shares the philosophical commitment, but there is an inertia that is extremely difficult to overcome. The idea so far lacks spark."

But other industries have been involved in similar successful initiatives, said media consultant Sam Luckin. He added: "It would be crazy to leave it to the local NFU officer." It was appalling that farmers were not taught media skills and courses should be introduced in agricultural colleges, he added.

Wynne Jones, principal at Harper Adams University College, said he thought an independent voice was needed. "Agriculture needs someone who is an honest broker. This may require an outsider to create a partnership with all those having a stake in the countryside." &#42