Archive Article: 2002/06/22

22 June 2002

THE wheat is now in flower, with cool rainy weather offering near-perfect conditions for grain fusarium. We last had a problem with this in 1998 when conditions at flowering were almost exactly the same as they are now. Of course the danger can be avoided to a certain extent by growing more resistant wheat varieties. But these are not the high yielders that we want to grow. Grain fusarium is always a worry but perhaps more so now because of the penalties it brings in a market where wheat prices this summer could be around k20/t (£13/t) below even last years lows.

Naturally, millers and merchants are now paying even more attention to this aspect. The atmosphere here in Germany has been highly charged by the latest food scandal, that of the long-banned herbicide Nitrofen being found in organically grown feed wheat. That discovery is now being given the same massive media attention as the BSE crisis here two years ago. Then, it was the conventional farmers that suffered. Now, it appears that the organic sector is going to get most of the attention.

Both "scandals" are massive media events. Neither BSE nor Nitrofen has led to deaths here in Germany, as far as I know. But theres been enormous economic damage.

While we conventional farmers were the bad guys following BSE and the Minister of Agriculture used the disaster to engineer more support for organic production with extra money and big publicity campaigns, the bio boys now have their own scandal. But theres little room nowadays for Schadenfreude.

The lesson to be learned is surely that the basic production method is not the important thing. Instead, a common high standard of food and feed safety is required and everyone in the business should be working towards this goal…a standard of full traceability and assured quality allowing potential scandals to be nipped in the bud and not discovered when theyve already developed into massive problems.

In this context the latest Nitrofen disaster has revealed a fundamental problem within the organic farming philosophy: how can a concept that idealises, and wishes to retain, "Old MacDonald-type" small-structured and diversified farming, hope to cope with the obvious requirements of assured quality food production including management of high and consistent standards through large scale control?

Talking of the biological revolution, wasnt it truly ironic that Prince Charles was over here as a prominent representative of the organic farming movement in Britain right in the middle of the Nitrofen scandal? But even with that background, the visit, and therefore the ecological movement, got the sort of favourable media coverage in the German press that the conventional farming sector can only dream about nowadays. No less than two cabinet ministers accompanied the Prince to organic institutes and at least one bio-farm. Theres little doubt that, by now, the term organic farming is firmly linked with the British way of life for millions of television viewers here.

Surely nows the time for Britains efficient conventional farmers – Crops readers for instance – to rally round and send an equally prominent user of sprayers and fertiliser spreaders over here to set the picture straight and do something for the image of the vast majority of British growers.

And while were on about public image, the farming sector here must give much more consideration to crop quality assurance schemes, I believe. Their role in bolstering public confidence in the food production chain would seem obvious.

In my mind we have a lot to learn about quality assurance. After all, among many other things, quality assurance schemes on farms control grain storage facilities, and we now know that the Nitrofen scandal started off with a contaminated grain store.

We are starting to see the beginnings of a big change, though. There will be a move towards national quality assurance, a development that will initially bring many problems to individual farms. And if we – both organic and conventional farmers – fail to support this movement, if we fail to recognise food safety as a competitive tool and cease to regard it as simply a control, then therell be no shortage of farmers in Denmark, France and Britain to take our place as partners in the European food chain.

See more