19 January 2001

NFUtargets MPs in a bid

to win farming PRbattle

By Alistair Driver

THE NFU is to launch a major campaign to woo politicians in the run-up to the General Election after union president Ben Gill admitted that farmers were losing the public relations battle against environmental groups and animal welfare groups.

The NFU campaign will be launched at the unions annual conference early next month. It will aim to educate politicians about how farming is changing and highlight key issues that the government should address. "We need strong stories to put our message across," Mr Gill told delegates at an NFU council meeting in London on Thursday (Jan 11).

NFU officials are frustrated that bad stories about food scares, welfare and environmental damage receive much more media coverage than good farming stories. Mr Gill anticipates a wave of anti-farming stories, emanating from welfare and conservation groups keen to put across their political agenda as the expected May election approaches.

The decision to woo politicians came as it emerged that the government rejected NFU proposals to avert a pesticide tax after union officials failed to consult environmentalists and consumers. Treasury financial secretary Stephen Timms said that the NFU and Crop Protection Association (CPA), which represents pesticide manufacturers, should have gathered more outside opinion before submitting their proposals.

Mr Timms is known to favour a separate set of proposals compiled by the Ulster Farmers Union which consulted with the RSPB, the Consumer Council and the retail giant Tesco. He has given the NFU and the CPA until next Friday (Jan 26) to come up with revised proposals or face the prospect that a pesticides tax will almost certainly be introduced in the governments spring Budget.

The NFU has responded by calling a urgent meeting with conservation groups, including the RSPB, the Pesticides Action Network and English Nature. Alex McGarel, of the Ulster Farmers Union pesticides working party, said: "The reality of politics is that the government is more likely to listen to consumers and environmentalists than farmers."

The NFU has also been stung by recent criticism over its Little Red Tractor logo designed to boost sales of British food. Graham Wynne, chief executive of the RSPB, criticised the tractor logo on BBCs Countryfile last week, saying it only guaranteed minimum environmental standards.

MPs have also criticised the unions relationship with environmentalists, not least its decision to walk out of a government-sponsored forum set up for farmers and environmentalists to discuss methods of controlling TB. Brian Jennings, chairman of the NFU animal health and welfare committee, said last week he was too busy to trot along to the meetings which did not produce any results.

Simon Rayner, NFU public relations manager, conceded that farmers had not been as focussed as other groups when it came to public relations. Partly as a result, public opinion of farmers often lagged behind the changes taking place on farms. He added: "Almost any problem in farming in farming is a communication problem. Public relations has to be a part of everything we do."

See XXXXXXXx, pages 14,15.

Farmers are losing out to environmentalists on spray tax proposals.