DAVID RICHARDSON

9 November 2001




DAVID RICHARDSON

Only a Confederation

of British Agriculture

can persuade the

government to

implement policies that

will help real farmers

DEFRA seems to be taking a perverse delight in adding insult to injury. In more agricultural terms they are not only defecating on agriculture, they are rubbing it in. And its not just livestock farmers who are suffering. Arable operators are getting it, too.

Not content with inaccurately blaming farmers for foot-and-mouth, rather than admitting their own incompetence, they have now cut welfare disposal compensation to levels so low as to virtually guarantee that farmers who have to use the scheme extensively will be forced out of business.

And having ignored the scale of the arable crisis, caused by the weather, low world prices and currency distortion, because the UK is not in the k-zone, they refused to apply to the EU for £57m automatic compensation to help make up the difference in ex-farm values of crops.

Meanwhile, ministers trot out their usual line about farmers having to change their ways. The implication of such statements is that we are subsidy junkies and that there is no justification for our anger. The government, they suggest, has done more than it needed to help the industry and now farmers must help themselves. They say nothing of the unlevel playing field on which this is supposed to happen – a playing field that appears to have a one-in-four slope against farmers and down which blows a continuous force 10 gale.

So often are the misleading messages repeated that much of the sympathy the industry gained from F&M has been eroded – just as DEFRA wants. For farming is far from top of the departments list of priorities. Mrs Beckett is more interested in the world environment and making her mark in the Marrakesh climate change talks this week than in the plight of cattle producers in Cumberland or wheat growers in west Suffolk. Only last week she announced a £50,000 grant to fund a new project on climate change in South Africa.

That is not to say climate change is unimportant. Indeed, it may have serious implications for us all. But ministerial willingness to spend time and money on matters of peripheral and long-term interest to UK, while they neglect the urgent and growing crisis at home, illustrates where their real interests lie, namely where they will get what they regard as the best publicity for themselves and their government.

For modern politics has more to do with spin doctoring than with governing the country with fairness and vision. It is a game our industry has failed fully to comprehend and we are regularly beaten in the battle for the hearts and minds of British people. Moreover, this defeat in the PR stakes and our inability to persuade public opinion to back mainstream agriculture is the biggest single failing of our industry.

In this age of instantaneous electronic communications, image is vital. Many of those who brief against us have mastered the art of attractive image creation and they tackle it with enthusiasm and dedication. Some of the single-issue pressure groups with interests ranging from conservation in general, birds in particular, animal welfare and, disgracefully in my view, colleagues who farm organically, have been successfully spinning against the rest of us for years. It has reached the point where the government takes advice from such narrowly focused groups on the broad future of our industry. They sit on commissions, almost to the exclusion of real farmers. From their minority positions they control the farming policies imposed on the silent majority.

I will not try to attribute specific blame for this failing. If anything, all of us who have sat mute while falsehoods were being perpetrated are responsible. And there is no doubt those who represent the various interests of our industry have done their best. But, at the risk of offending some who have worked their socks off in the interests of agriculture, I have to say their efforts have not delivered what was required. If they had farmers would not have such a dreadful image, nor would we be falling still further in public esteem, while DEFRA plots against us.

So, if the old order does not work a new one must be tried – unless, that is, we are prepared to stand by as our industry sinks and eventually disappears beneath the waves of world competition. The only hope I can see of tackling the tide of anti-farming spin and reversing it is for farmers, landowners, the supply trade, the merchants, indeed all who rely on agricultural prosperity for their livelihood, to unite around one public relations initiative.

That does not mean existing representative bodies should be removed. They will continue to be necessary to lobby for specific factors that affect their sector. But 60% to 70% of issues are common to all and a small, economical, fast moving, pro-active body to which all existing bodies should subscribe could be set up to deal with the presentation of such issues to the media. Some have dubbed such a body a Confederation of British Agriculture. Others prefer to call it an agriculture council. But dont lets waste time arguing about the name. Lets get the thing set up and working. Its almost too late already.


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