16 April 1999

SEACcalls for end to scrapie disease

GOVERNMENTS BSE advisory committee, SEAC, has called on MAFF to develop a disease control programme that will eradicate scrapie in sheep.

At the launch of a SEAC sub-group report on Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in sheep, Sir John Pattison, SEAC chairman, said that there remained a possibility that BSE had transferred to sheep before the meat and bonemeal ban was introduced in 1988.

He added that there was a further possibility that BSE, like scrapie, might be sustained in sheep populations by maternal transmission or infection between unrelated animals within the flock.

But Prof Pattison emphasised that, although there was still no evidence of a link between BSE, scrapie and the human brain disease nvCJD, an eradication programme should be devised after consultation with industry.

The sub-group now wants to investigate scrapie incidence more fully. It suggested that target surveillance of certain farms which had previously reported scrapie should be carried out. And, where possible, feeding practices on target farms should be retrospectively investigated. The group also recommends experiments on transmissibility should begin, with all suspect TSE cases genotyped.

SEAC was also concerned that there could be under-reporting by farmers of suspected cases of scrapie.

While the NFU said it would welcome any surveillance programme that improved animal health, but it disputed the suggestion of under-reporting.

"Scrapie is an extremely rare disease and farmers are compensated for sheep compulsorily slaughtered. There is no point in farmers under- reporting the disease," an official said.

Grocers referred

THE Office of Fair Trading has referred the £60bn a year grocery retailing sector to the Competition Commission.

The move had been widely forecast (News, Apr 2) and follows an eight-month OFT competition inquiry which looked at the profit levels of the four largest supermarket chains – Tesco, Sainsburys, Safeway and Asda.

The commission now has 12 months to report to trade secretary Stephen Byers on whether or not a monopoly exists in the sector.

It will also report on whether the situation is being exploited or if a monopoly operates, or may be expected to operate, against the public interest.

Director general of fair trading John Bridgeman said: "After analysing the profits of the four largest supermarket chains using a range of conventional and specialist economic measures, I have to conclude that there is a level of profitability here which requires further investigation by the commission."

Among several competition issues Mr Bridgeman said that the relationship between the multiples and agricultural producers, and the ways in which buyer power was exerted, needed further consideration.

"My interest has been in trying to find out whether excessive profits are being earned," he said, adding that he was concerned that the size of the supermarkets had brought them tremendous buying power.

"I have had concerns for some time that this power may become exploitative," he concluded.

Suffolk farmer Chris Clements is appealing for sponsorship to help with transportation costs involved in taking a lorry on an aid mission to Albania. His vehicle will join a 14-lorry convoy, leaving next week, carrying baby products and other essentials to Kosovar refugees who have been forced from their homes. Mr Clements, who farms with his brother Andy near Bury St Edmunds, has already received generous donations from local agricultural companies but says more is urgently needed. Cheques made payable to the Albanian Refugee Appeal can be sent to All Saints CEVC School, Lawshall, Suffolk, or contact Mr Clements on 07970 792367.

IN BRIEF

&#8226 NFU president, Ben Gill, and deputy president, Tony Pexton, met Treasury minister, Patricia Hewitt, this week to discuss the negative impact the union believes a pesticides tax would have on British farmers.

The NFU insists a tax, which it believes could cost growers £320m, will not achieve the governments aim of improving the environment. Industry research had shown that hard-pressed farmers were likely, instead, to switch to cheaper, less environmentally-friendly alternatives.

&#8226 NFU president Ben Gill has been elected vice-president of COPA, the umbrella group of EU farming unions.

Newly elected COPA president is Noel Devisch of the Belgian farming union Boerenbond.

&#8226 REMOTE sensing will be used again this year to check that IACS applicants are providing accurate area and cropping information.

MAFF has announced that, as in previous years, satellite pictures and aerial photography will be used to monitor claims to help in the EUs fight against fraud.

&#8226 DUE to problems with the late harvesting of potatoes, the Scottish Office has agreed that such land can be entered into set-aside this year under the bare fallow option instead of having to establish a green cover.

Control of ground keepers will be permitted but no cultivation is allowed between May 1 and Jul 15. During that period, a derogation may be sought to control ground keepers with herbicides.

Vet charges to

kill exporting

By Isabel Davies

MAFFS announcement of new veterinary inspection arrangements has been condemned as a backdoor restriction of trade that could spell the end of live exports.

According to Farmers Ferry, the live export company set up last year by a group of Welsh farmers, the new measures will double inspection charges, adding an extra £189,000 a year to exporters costs.

David Owen, secretary of Farmers Ferry, said: "Loading additional costs on the industry could be interpreted as further restricting the trade that some in the ministry would like to see stopped."

Farmers Ferry had identified and opened up markets on the continent for UK producers, yet it was being hit by a backdoor attempt to end the trade.

"It is ironic that, in securing opportunities to boost the UKs own export trade and better the balance of payments, further restrictions are imposed by our own ministry," he said.

The new arrangements, some of which come into force at the end of next month, lay down the rules for the veterinary inspection of live export consignments.

Exporters will have to have animals inspected by independently nominated vets and pay for their services on a system of national charges operated by MAFF.

Currently, exporters select and pay their own veterinary inspectors.

The new arrangements, proposed in a consultation paper last July, were announced by junior farm minister Elliot Morley. He has made little secret of the fact that the government would like to see live exports banned.

"The government cannot lawfully ban the live export trade because of EU single market rules. But the government is committed to ensuring the highest possible standards of animals health and welfare apply when exports do take place," he said.

The arrangements will apply to all consignments of sheep and pigs going for fattening or slaughter in other EU members states.

A spokesman for the National Sheep Association said: "While we are 100% in favour of high welfare standards, with the sheep industry on the ropes, as it is at the moment, we need every outlet we can get."

An end to live exports would delight animal welfare campaigners. Compassion in World Farming said it believed the trade could become unprofitable if the new guidelines were rigidly enforced.

In 1998 about 700,000 sheep and 10,500 pigs were exported with a total value of £27.3m.

GMconsortium starts search

THE consortium of seven leading EU retailers from six countries pledged to finding GM-free sources of crops (News, Mar 19) has now appointed a joint committee to scour the world in search of supplies.

The announcement was made on Wednesday by Marks and Spencer which, with Sainsbury, forms the British end of the consortium. The other members are Carrefor (France), Migros (Switzerland), Delhaize (Belgium), Super Quinn (Ireland), and Effelunga (Italy).

"We are reacting to concerns about GM foods from a sizeable percentage of our customers. We want to be able to source GM-free crops so that supplies can be arranged to our producers," said Chris Brown, M&S livestock specialist.

But he emphasised that, even if sufficient GM-free supplies could be located, producers in the companys Select Farms scheme would not be forced to use them. "We think there will be twin standards within the scheme," he said.

Dr Brown refuted claims from supply trade body UKASTA that using GM-free animal feeds would make producers uncompetitive. "We cannot say that until we look for supplies. Seven major retailers will create quite a large demand."

M&S also announced that it was likely to extend forward pricing contracts to both beef and lamb this autumn after a successful pilot scheme involving 3600 lambs in Wales during the first quarter of this year.

More state aid for French pig area

FRENCH pig producers are set to benefit from another F140m (£14.4m) of government aid, designed to help them through the current crisis.

Despite the EU Commission already having initiated legal proceedings against two previous packages, farm minister Jean Glavany last week announced a third tranche of state aid.

The deal will include cutting farmers social security charges and will offer diversification aid, cash for employment programmes in rural areas and the equivalent of £205,000 for promotion work.

The commission is still considering what action to take over the two aid packages, worth more than F500m (£50m), announced by the French government last autumn. Parts of the schemes, the commission said in Dec, threatened to distort competition in favour of French producers.

More than 150 south-west dairy farmers converged on Unigates Totnes, Devon, plant on Tuesday to protest about low milk prices. Although Unigate is one of the biggest buyers in the region, the protesting farmers stressed that the problem was industry-wide. Brian Pocock, Unigates director of agricultural affairs, told the farmers he knew the current milk price was below the cost of production. That gave him no pleasure but Unigate had to survive in a very competitive industry. Richard Haddock, chairman of Devon NFU, challenged Unigate to pay a fair price for milk and set the pace for other buyers. Mr Pocock said the firm would go bust if it paid above the market rate, but Mr Haddock insisted that farmers would prevent that happening by persuading the public to support Unigate in preference to other manufacturers. "If competitors wont go along with you in paying a fair price well ask the public to boycott them," Mr Haddock said.

HLCAreform proposals bode ill for hill men

By Jonathan Riley

THE Welsh and Scottish Offices proposals for the reform of Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances could spell disaster for hill and tenant farmers, say industry leaders.

MAFF is not expected to release its plans to switch from headage to area payments until the end of next week. But last weeks Scottish and Welsh proposals (News, Apr 9) have already created a storm.

Tenant Farmers Association chief executive George Dunn said: "We are totally opposed to a switch in payments. In many cases the only assets that a tenant farmer holds are the livestock and the subsidy payment. A switch to area payments would pass a valuable asset to the landlords who are already paid for the value of the land through the rent they receive.

"Area payments would also increase land values and cut stock values reducing the tenants assets still further."

But he recognised some change was needed as a result of the Agenda 2000 CAP reforms and because of concerns about overgrazing.

The TFA has offered an alternative to area payments. "We are suggesting that the producer receives a direct bond payment that is linked to historical stocking levels and subject to environmental requirements. The payment could be reviewed regularly and only continued if environmental requirements have been adhered to," explained Mr Dunn.

"The producer then receives payment and has to be responsible for the environment while neither the value of the sheep nor the land is distorted. It also means that the person farming retains some asset," he said.

National Sheep Association chief executive John Thorley said changing to area-based payments would mean a redistribution of payments from smaller hill farms to larger ones and that could spell the end for some farmers.

"Its against natural justice and the only way forward is to relate any future form of payment to a previous stocking history, which the Welsh office wants to avoid. But it is the only fair way," Mr Thorley insisted.

He also condemned the Welsh Office proposal to cap payments made to larger farms.

"This poses further dangers and could alter the delicately balanced labour structure. Larger farms often support part-time workers who in turn may be farming smaller units on a part-time basis.

"Modulation could rule out their employment on the larger unit and their own small units would then not survive. It will be the smaller farmers that suffer if these proposals are not rejected," he warned.

NFU Less Favoured Area committee chairman Peter Allen said that the proposals were a blunt instrument that could hit genuine farmers hardest.

He said a switch to area aid could result in some of the vast estates simply farming the subsidy system. Job losses would result.

"One man could administer an estate of 27,000 acres and investment firms could move in and oust the genuine worker," he added.

Pig men protest in London rally

Pig producers joined 100s of lorry drivers in central London and brought roads around Hyde Park and Park Lane to a close earlier this week………….page 14

Inspector calls?

Cattle producers are up in arms about recent advice on cattle identification inspections…but those fearing a visit are advised not to panic by the NFU…page 39

Sexed semen push

Two more breeding companies have invested £0.9m in semen sexing, joining cattle breeding company Cogent in the race for commercial development…………………………page 40

Cyberspace sales

A sheep producer has had encouraging reactions to his web site where rams can be bought. The key to advertising on the Internet is making potential customers aware you have a web site, he says………………..page 47

Oat cuisine

Oats may have an image problem but they are highly suitable for replacing bought-in proteins and energy for livestock feeding……………………………page 50

Prairie poser

Beef producers in Alberta, the heart of the Canadian beef industry, are trying to cut costs as they face increasing challenges from the US, their main export market…………….page 51

Learning curves

Cheaper courses and more of them…Lantra the national training organisers for the land-based sector has made changes which many observers will welcome…………………………page 71

Rubber model…

John Deeres 8400T rubber tracked tractor hit the UKtwo years ago when a Northants operation bought a model off its own bat. We report on whether the companys decision was worthwhile………………..page 72