8 March 2002

UNITYISSTRENGTH,SORESISTALLCALLSFOR

ABREAKAWAYUNION

Divide and rule. Its a tactic that seldom fails. So, with what glee must some have welcomed talk of a breakaway arable union. DEFRA officials, certain supermarkets, other near-monopoly organisations and single-interest pressure groups must be delighted.

Its not difficult to understand growers motivation. For four years arable profits have been under severe pressure thanks to the lethal combination of the strong £ and weak k. Growers have been forced to contend with a relentless tide of bureaucracy, which shows every sign of quickening. Bad weather in the autumn of 2000 further devastated incomes.

Then, as growers struggled to recover, foot-and-mouth struck, monopolising the attention of DEFRA, Brussels, farming leaders and the media. No wonder growers feel neglected – even by the people employed to represent them.

But the truth is different. On key issues the NFU has campaigned tirelessly. It has long advocated agrimoney compensation and helped to secure £34m of non-compulsory aid. Last autumn, the union warned about ending the 10k/t import tariff on grain from eastern Europe. It has also lobbied to maintain access to cheap imported agrochemicals and to dissuade Chancellor Gordon Brown from introducing a pesticide tax.

Not even the most ardent NFU fan would pretend the organisation is flawless. Its dogged determination to resist democracy in the form of one-person, one-vote remains a running stain on its reputation. Also, how has its zeal for crop assurance benefited growers?

Nevertheless, its always easier to break than to build. Growers need a strong, united voice as never before. The best chance of finding that voice is by backing the NFU at local level in order for it to voice arable concerns on the national stage. Arable farmers should beware siren voices suggesting disintegration. Their best chance of a secure future lies in the unity that denies divide and rule a chance to succeed.