Archive Article: 1997/12/13

13 December 1997

The sweet and sour marriage


THE relationship between beet growers and British Sugar has never been an easy one. L ,ike a bickering long-married couple, each partner knows it needs the other – but still cant live in peace after many years spent rowing.

At the heart of the latest argument is the issue of crown tares. Should British Sugar pay growers for the estimated £10m worth of sugar they squeeze out of the top of the root, as the NFU negotiators are demanding – or not?

Its clear that growers are backing the NFU argument. They are not impressed by British Sugars veiled threats that if growers dont back down, then the company may have to take greater control of haulage arrangements – which might rule out growers using their own lorries to carry beet to the factories.

There are carrots on offer, and these were detailed in a company leaflet sent out to growers. First, there is the suggestion that quota siphoning may be discontinued. This is the unpopular practice of removing 30% of beet quota when farm businesses change hands.

Second, the company is dangling the prospect of contract trading, whereby growers would be able to bid for extra quota.

With these benefits apparently dependent on giving way on the crown tare argument, the debate is rapidly approaching deadlock. Meanwhile, beet profitability is shrinking on farm. Sugar cheques are down by one-fifth on last year, which does nothing to sweeten British Sugars case. It has to be said that this is due to the strength of sterling and not British Sugars fault – but it adds to growers sense of grievance.

The relationship between growers and British Sugar is on the rocks. Is it a case for marriage guidance – or arbitration?

Blind faith!

SOMETHING strange has occurred north of the border. NIAB wheat variety trials have been afflicted by a mysterious calamity.

For once, its not crop circles appearing overnight – instead its blind ears. This is a problem guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of growers and the seed trade alike, ever since the sorry saga of Moulin. That variety bombed after fertility problems became apparent, only after a large area had been drilled.

With wheat, blind grain sites are not unusual, but the plant usually compensates by filling another site somewhere else on the ear. Growers dont notice because yields are not affected. But at NIABs Aberdeen site this summer, many varieties were hit so badly that yield losses were significant – almost half, in some cases.

Its likely that unusual weather, namely late frosts, lack of sunshine and heavy summer rain was responsible. There is anecdotal evidence that other local crops were also hit. But because some varieties were affected more badly than others, there could be a varietal effect as well. So NIAB decided to include the figures as a separate table within the HGCA variety summary in this issue of Crops.

They were right to do so. Until plant breeders and/or agronomists can come up with a full explanation for last seasons abnormal results, growers have no way of knowing what the chances are of such problems recurring. But we have been warned…

A mood of militancy

THERES a mood of militancy in the air, and arable growers are no doubt watching and noting the exploits of their beef farming brethren.

But, if the aim is to arm themselves against the unknown, would they be better taking a leaf out of the North American growers book? OK, we all know its litigation lunacy over there, but mightnt there be just a soupçon of sense in the food disparagement laws in 13 states that make it a crime to criticise perishable agricultural products without sound supporting scientific evidence?

Horticultural industry leaders managed recently to persuade Proctor and Gamble to withdraw magazine ads which linked tomatoes with E coli contamination without recourse to the courts. But next time?

And if youre one of those who dont believe that grains image could possibly be tarnished, that theres no need for protection from uninformed opinion, just take a look at the potential consumer issues raised in storage alone (see p22) – each of them the proverbial accident waiting to happen.

Should the industry consider a positive offensive?

Banging on about biotech

THE French government has over-turned its ban on the planting of genetically modified maize. The green light has been given to corn-borer resistant GM varieties from Novartis, which means that French growers will now be able to drill these types next spring.

Its only a partial victory for the plant breeders and biotech companies. GM herbicide resistant rape and sugar beet are still banned -despite the fact that imports of GM soya and rape products are allowed.

This contradictory position only goes to illustrate the muddle Europe is in on biotechnology. The problem is that consumers are yet to be persuaded that they, and not just agribusiness, stand to benefit from genetic engineering.

The truth is that they do – but the message is not getting across. In the US, scientists are now testing edible vaccines, contained within genetically-engineered potatoes. Potentially, anyone eating these spuds is given immunity to E-coli diarrhoea. This disease is a major killer of children, particularly in developing countries.

Also under investigation is a new drug against meningitis – a life-threatening disease which can overcome antibiotics. This drug has been created through the genetic manipulation of a protein produced by human immune cells.

These are just two examples of the benefits biotechnology can offer – but companies will not continue to make the huge investment necessary for research if they fear commercial returns could be blocked by political uncertainty.

Meanwhile in Europe we continue to prevaricate. The issue of labelling GM foodstuffs still hasnt been finalised. Lets get moving, or well miss out.

Brussels may limit spray use

AUTUMN herbicide spray programmes went well this season, thanks to ample weather windows. Sprayers are now safely tucked up in the shed for the winter.

Thats the good news; now heres the bad. Within three years, the freedom to use the pesticides required, just when they are needed, could be curtailed. Under discussion in Brussels is a new plan to limit crop protection products used – whether through taxation or a limit on the total weight of active ingredient put on to each crop.

This issue has been aired by the Commission before, but dismissed. It is returning to the agenda – and this time around the industry is predicting that a new policy will be imposed. Proposals are scheduled for 1999.

Agrochemical manufacturers are understandably concerned. It was an issue that raised much indignation at the annual agrochemical gathering in Brighton recently (see p36-37).

But it is not just the manufacturers profits that are at risk. If limits are brought in, or if prices are raised with taxation, then growers will also suffer.

The most frustrating fact is that the justification for extra legislation is highly questionable. Pesticide use in Europe is now regulated by some of the most stringent safety legislation in the world. Limiting usage would not necessarily help consumer safety; its just not that simple.

The industry needs to demonstrate both to consumers and to the Brussels policy makers the enormous scale of what is already being done. It needs to show, publicly, its commitment to integrated crop management. A free market, but ruled by strict safety and environmental impact legislation, is the best system for all – growers, consumers and the environment.

Whats sauce for the goose…

IF BUMS on seats are any measure of success, then the regional farm assurance roadshows have done the business. Growers were keen to attend and hear the arguments. But they were also eager to air their worries – loudly – about the extra paperwork and cost that will be attached to membership of the Assured Combinable Crops scheme.

With farm incomes down 37% for 1997 according to MAFF, the squeeze is on. Its a difficult time to introduce more constraints on businesses. But this is one issue that must be taken on board.

Farm assurance is inevitable. It will either arrive with industry consultation and co-operation, or it will be imposed by Government and/or supermarket buyers.

Growers need to look forward, be brave and make the leap into an assured future. Those attending the roadshows will have come away with a better understanding of whats involved. It boils down to common sense and responsible farm practice – and who would argue with that?

Grain buyers need to demonstrate that the principles of farm assurance will not stop at national borders. They must insist that imported supplies meet the same high standards, and prove to UK growers that whats sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander.

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