7 May 1999

Signposts proving tough to spot amid future fog

Plotting a path through the

many uncertainties facing

arable farming posed a stiff

challenge for speakers at a

Peterborough conference

last week. Andrew Blake

reports their key advice

FROM the fate of the Euro to detailed changes in the way grain protein is measured, and from the decline in research funding to the advent of genetically modified crops, speakers at the farmers weekly/NFU/nabim conference left much scope for speculation.

Indeed as chairman, Sir David Naish, pointed out, the lack of an all-embracing title for the meeting reflected the difficulties facing growers on all fronts.

The recent sinking of the k against sterling has put more pressure on farm incomes. And for the UK to join the EMU now would be unacceptable, said Brian Montgomery of the Nat West bank.

With the k worth only 66p, UK exports would be uncompetitive, there would be a threat from aggressive imports and growers would receive lower aid and area payments, he said.

But at a more acceptable value of 75p there would be distinct advantages in joining, not least in exposing the real differences in input costs between member states. Mr Montgomery noted that AA penlight batteries worked out at k5.03 in the UK, but cost only k2.41 in Spain.

"There is no doubt that some users of sprays and chemicals are already importing the vast majority of their inputs from Europe. Some variable costs are 25% less there than in the UK." Entry to the EMU would make those differences more transparent.

Another benefit should be cheaper finance costs, he added. "Currently there is a 2.5% gap."

Protein measures a hot topic

NABIMS decision to change the way millers measure grain protein drew plenty of discussion.

Despite assurances that the new system (Arable Mar 5) would not leave them worse off, several growers remained unconvinced.

Their arguments concerned financial deductions for grain not meeting contract protein specification.

The standard deduction is £1 for each 0.1% below spec, said Mike Sheppard of North Herts Farmers Grain. But under the new arrangements growers could find themselves losing an extra £2/t unless the level of allowances is changed to reflect the switch to a dry matter measurement basis, he claimed.

"At the moment the system appears to be changing in favour of the millers," said Northants farmer Andrew Pitts. Herts-based Scott Findlay agreed.

Alex Waugh of nabim said that to allay growers concerns millers would, when requested and as a gesture of goodwill, report proteins for a while using both the old and new methods. "It would be awkward but worth doing to allow everyone to see it is a fair policy."

To be of any value that undertaking would have to operate for at least the whole of the next marketing year, said Mr Sheppard.

In pointing to the need for change, Mr Waugh produced a British Cereal Exports document indicating proteins in the UK as much lower than those in France and Germany. Because different methods had been used it was effectively under-selling UK wheat, he noted.

Industry must support cereal R&D

INDUSTRY input to research and development is essential if the UK cereal industry is to remain competitive in difficult times, according to the HGCAs Paul Meakin.

"It is a great tribute to the industry that in the 1990s it has continued to put money into research."

Much valuable work has been undertaken, but more needs to be done to relay the results, he conceded. "We are putting extra emphasis on delivering the messages." A new annual up-date of all the research in progress should be available this summer.

Key projects deserving more growers attention include research on differences in fungicide yield responses between varieties, said Dr Meakin. "By taking more note of inherent resistance, disease levels and spray timing, up to 50% reduction in dose rate has been achieved reliably and safely."

A simple cereal tissue test for P and K, offering potential savings of £30/ha (£12/acre), and a new 15 minute check to help millers detect over-dried grain are other good examples of practical spin-offs.

Conference pointers

&#8226 Consumer pressure could mean GM food becoming as rare as irradiated food. But irradiated food is still used in hospitals where absolute cleanliness is essential. (Rev Michael Reiss of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes.)

&#8226 Produce assurance is increasingly the way ahead. A new group of 15 EU retailers, EUREP, is drawing up agreed production standards as a benchmark for comparing systems elsewhere in the world. (Michael Garbutt, Safeway Stores.)

Farmers face blame for GM crop trouble

IF genetically modified crops cause problems it will be farmers who get blamed, warned Jeanette Longfield of Sustain, a group lobbying for better food and farming.

"Who puts it right if it goes wrong?" is just one of many questions being posed by consumers, she said. Most of the answers depend on information. "My concern is that at the moment that information is all in the hands of the biotech industry. It is vital that government replenishes the funding of public services and research to provide more independent science." &#42