Archive Article: 1997/11/08

8 November 1997

Lessons on biotech blunder

ITS rather a case of gamekeeper turned poacher. Monsanto, key player in plant biotechnology, has taken on a new public affairs guru – Anne Foster – straight from the Scottish Consumer Council.

It appears to be the first positive step that the US-company has taken regarding biotechnology. Force-feeding the European market with genetically-engineered maize was an arrogant disregard for European concerns. As a result Monsanto has done an enormous disservice to the acceptance of biotechnology by consumers, and its smooth adoption by farmers and growers.

Lets hope that Ms Foster can put them straight. She faces an uphill struggle. In complete contrast, Monsantos competitor Du Pont is adopting a softly, softly approach, and overturning Monsantos contention that harvested crops of biotech origin cant be separated out from conventional produce.

Indeed, Du Pont is already setting up the arrangements with major processors and commodity traders which will ensure separate channels for its genetically-engineered crops when they reach the market after 2000.

Growers may not take to the idea of their farms as "factory interfaces" – as they are termed in Du Pont-speak. But if this is what it takes to set up a separate supply chain, then so be it. It is increasingly clear that closer co-operation between all strands of the food production chain are essential to both a healthy industry and one that can convince consumers of its responsibility in matters of new technology.

Hopefully, lessons have been learnt from the controversies of the past year. Now, the major investors in biotechnology should be working together to get the correct message across to the public at large.

Mama mia!

THIS years bad harvest has a lot to answer for. The Italians are throwing up their hands in horror at the poor quality grain being shipped over from the UK.

Until now, Italian millers had been buying about 400,000 to 600,000t of British wheat annually.

Part of the problem is that soft wheats such as Riband and Consort – which have the milling profile the Italians prefer – have been kept back for domestic biscuit premium markets. This raises the proportion of hard feed varieties in bulk export shipments, so reducing the appeal for foreign millers.

Some might say that if Italian millers, or other foreign buyers, want soft milling grain then they should pay for it – and not expect to get something for nothing within British wheat exports.

British Cereal Exports takes a different view. It wants UK growers to supply what the customer wants, and produce a higher proportion of Group 2 and 3 varieties.

Its argument is that this will enhance our export prospects, by attracting a larger number of potential customers. Because British grain does not have the inherent quality of the French or German crop, then we need to tempt buyers with added value – which in this case means some milling quality at a feed wheat price.

Sounds sensible – but perhaps a little simplistic. Even if all the UK wheat were to be of such quality varieties, it only needs one bad harvest to knock the stuffing out of export hopes. This year UK exports will depend on price – our pretensions to quality wont get a look in.

It will be a testing time. If grain prices fall sharply as a direct result of poor export demand, then the arguments look stronger for changing our varietal mix. But would this really support our domestic wheat prices – or are we intent on giving the Continentals something for nothing?

Flax is back

in fashion

UNWANTED flax straw is rotting in barns around the country. This is not just a waste of £34m of European taxpayers money in subsidies over the past three years. Its a public relations disaster for farming.

The EU is tightening up the rules, and now insists that flax must be tied into a processing contract before the cash is paid out. But this is only part of the answer.

Before flax can be said to earn its keep both ethically and economically, the crop must have a real market. And up to now the UK has not been able to achieve this.

Some sectors of the industry are doing their best to make fibre flax work, but progress has been slow. More often than not, UK conditions produce more low quality flax straw than the potentially higher value, high quality fibre. Finding a home for the low quality fibres has proved tricky, but merchants are now succeeding in the paper and car industry.

A new initiative aims to take high quality UK grown fibre and use it as a cotton substitute (p20). If the plan succeeds, it will open more lucrative markets for UK flax.

For a crop that has been painted for the general public as one of the worst examples of CAP extravagance, this may prove a turning point. Lets hope it is.

Grannys £

SWEET old thing she may be, but do you really want your granny to decide the fate of sterling?

Its not such a daft statement. Many pundits in the arable industry shudder when they consider the impact a public referendum on European monetary union (EMU) could have on their businesses. They argue if ever there was a case for sidestepping democracy, such a weighty issue is quite definitely not one to be left to the people.

Too many of the nation at large may still harbour affection for the dear old £ and the sovereignty of Parliament. The unfortunate reality is that to retain any semblance of a major trading nation, Britain has to join the club that will have its joint currency in euros by 2002.

Staying outside the EMU will expose UK agriculture, and other industries, to the vagaries of the world currency market and its speculators.

Sorry, Grandma!


EVER wondered what such luminaries as Tony Pexton, Oliver Walston and Anthony Rosen have in common – besides an ability to attract the headlines? Armed with a dog-eared passport, a battered suitcase and intense curiosity about foreign farming, all three have ventured abroad courtesy of a Nuffield travel scholarship.

But the number of applications to the Nuffield Trust are declining. It may be due to increasing pressures of work and the difficulty of taking a few months off – or that there are fewer young people employed in agriculture than ever before. Or perhaps its just that the industry has forgotten just what a Nuffield scholarship can offer.

Why not have a try? Anyone involved with agriculture, who is under forty, can benefit. The closing date for the 1998 intake is 15 Jan. If youre interested, contact the director, NFST, East Holme Farm, Maresfield, Uckfield, E Sussex, or phone 01825 762928 (fax 768820).

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