12 May 2001

Guy Smith takes issue with the stance of the Soil Association and other pressure groups during the FMD crisis

WHEN the present foot-and-mouth outbreak first unfolded many of us instantly recollected the dark days of November 1967 when FMD last stalked the British Countryside.

In many ways the 1967 outbreak has been different to the one in 2001. Maybe the most lasting difference this time round is that the epidemic has been cynically used by various anti-farming pressure groups to pursue their own agendas.

We have had Friends of the Earth calling for a halt to the GM trial programme because, they falsely claim, such trials spread FMD. Then there was the World Wildlife Fund for Nature which saw this as a good time to issue a press release about the damage farming allegedly does to the natural environment. For such organisations such times are strategic moments to move up a campaigning gear. For one pressure group in particular this is a time to go into overdrive.

The Soil Association has taken the gloves off. For the SAs director, Patrick Holden, there could not be a better time to get stuck into his favourite enemy – non-organic farmers. He has two favourite tactics: scaremongering and witch-hunting. He has repeatedly suggested FMD raises food safety issues and then blamed the FMD crisis on modern intensive farming with its poisonous pesticides and fertilisers. An intelligent man like Patrick Holden knows none of this is actually true but he also knows it is easier for non-farmers to believe a simple lie than it is for them to understand a complex truth.

Patrick Holden is now starting to punch well above his weight. He has a quadruple whammy for those who will not voluntarily sign up to his organic ideology. First he will take our subsidies away and give them only to organic farmers. Then he will tax our inputs to drive up our costs of production. Then he will stop us having new, safe, cost-saving, technologies such as GM – a technology that our competitors already have. Finally he will do his utmost to undermine consumer confidence in our products. According to the SA, our produce is "laced with pesticides". Even if the food we produce is not actually "laced with pesticides", the very suggestion is enough to leave a nasty taste in our customers mouths.

It is time for those who do not want to pray at the Soil Association altar to start taking the likes of Patrick Holden very, very, seriously. He is not a maverick or a crank. He is a smooth operator, a master tactician and, most worrying of all, a charming man. His organisation is gaining immense influence in many key areas – the media, conservation groups, the monarchy, among politicians, among retailers and among consumers.

One reason for his success is the laziness of those who do not agree with him – that is people like me and probably you. It is high time we developed some of his zeal and went on the offensive. Never underestimate the ability of the people in the organic movement.

Any outfit that can get rational people to smoke organic cigarettes and eat organic fudge for "health" reasons are nothing short of marketing geniuses.

Last year I was lucky enough to win the Nuffield "Frank Arden" Award. My remit was to look at ways UK Agriculture can improve its image. One conclusion I have come to is that in the last 25 years a plethora of pressure groups have emerged that seek to demonise modern agriculture and then insist it must fundamentally change. Just like the Soil Association, they are starting to seriously influence policy. Rather than respond to this challenge, the farming industry has sat like a mesmerised rabbit in the oncoming headlights. Environmental pressure groups have rung rings round us in the media. We just get dizzy.

We need our own version of the Soil Association to counter the propaganda and machinations that damage us as an industry. Maybe it is already too late. Maybe the only agriculture we will be allowed to hand on to our children will be museum agriculture. What future are we bequeathing them – a farming so lacking in confidence in anything new that it constantly looks backward? Go organic? I would rather go to Mystic Meg for medical advice.

&#8226 Essex farmer Guy Smith thinks we need a new body to speak up for non-organic farmers. He is keen to hear your views; contact him on gsmith2692@aol.com or fax 01255 822050.

Gloves are off as groups pursue own agendas