5 January 2001
Use public sympathy, urges RASE chief

By Isabel Davies in Oxford

THE chief executive of the Royal Agricultural Society of England has urged farmers to improve the publics understanding of agriculture.

Producers must take advantage of the public sympathy for farmers, Mike Calvert told the Oxford Farming Conference on Friday (05 January).

Although farmers are suffering from the worst crisis in living memory, many people have a genuine desire to know more about food and farming, he said.

Educating children and informing the broader population would not help the short-term situation or in itself solve farmers problems, Mr Calvert said.

But it could make a significant contribution to its future.

If the industry responds to the concerns and desires of the public, it can reasonably expect much more support from the community as a whole, he said.

Mr Calvert said farmers must change their attitude towards the public.

In the past, the industry has all too often been caught on its back foot. Farmers should be much more up-front and be prepared to lead the debate in the future.

Mr Calverts comments follow research which shows children as young as seven have formed a poor opinion of farmers and farming.

Liza Dibble of the Countryside Foundation for Education said interviews with children who had visited a farm in Cirencester showed strong negative attitudes.

Delegates at the Oxford conference watched a video sponsored by RASE which shows what children from town and country areas really think.

Asked before they visited the farm how they would describe a farmer the children typically replied “ugly, old, sweaty, hairy and scruffy”.

And questioned whether they thought farmers were good or bad for the environment the responses were again negative.

The children, from schools in Gloucestershire, said farmers were always killing things, sprayed crops with pesticides and grew GM crops.

Although children from rural areas displayed a better knowledge of farming and the countryside, their attitudes to children from Swindon were very similar.

However, Ms Dibble is expected to argue there is some reason for optimism.

“The good news is these children are capable of reasoning,” she said

“All we have to do is equip teachers with the information and enable and enthuse them to blend farming and rural issues into the national curriculum.”