23 August 2002


British ministers have

failed miserably to

secure economic

sustainablity in this

country, so how are

they qualified to take

part in the world

summit on sustainable


The two-week world summit on sustainable development begins on Monday in Johannesburg. As the media have quite rightly informed us, thousands of government ministers and officials from around the world, including environment secretary, Michael Meacher, will gather at some of South Africas most expensive hotels to pontificate about the fate of poverty-stricken people, some of whom live in shanty towns only a few miles away. It is unlikely that those doing the talking will meet those they are discussing.

Towards the end of the first week, British ministers and their entourages will arrive to contribute their six-pennyworth. By what authority they consider themselves suitable candidates to give advice to the developing world is unclear. For they have failed miserably to secure the economic sustainability of either manufacturing industry or agriculture even in this sophisticated country. And whatever deputy prime minister, John Prescott, claims, his governments contribution to environmental sustainability has consisted of red tape and words and not much more. Against such a background, what hope is there that they may inspire progress in the third world?

There are said to be 14m starving people in Africa and the situation is getting worse. Here in the UK the governments deliberate neglect of farming seems likely to lead to a record area of voluntary set-aside in 2003 as growers seek a less risky option than growing crops for food. Now I am well aware that economists and politicians say these two situations are unrelated, that much of Africa is politically unstable and cannot pay for food even if there are surpluses elsewhere, that the rules say EU grain cannot be given or sold cheaply to starving people. Meanwhile those people are dying at an accelerating rate. So much for sustainable development. But perhaps the problems of Africa defy solution. I trust our happy band of government ministers and officials enjoy their luxury trip at our expense as they come to the same conclusion.

Meanwhile, back here in Norfolk we have had a better harvesting week. Once again, storms have interrupted progress in some areas, but for a few days, at least on this farm, we were able to pile grain in the barn without drying it. May that continue for another few weeks.

Reverting to the sustainability theme, I took a couple of hours off from barn work last week to attend an emergency meeting called by north Norfolk malting barley grower Teddy Maufe. The purpose of the early morning event (timed so as not to disrupt combining) was to draw attention to the fact that at £60/t or less, the crop shows a significant loss. Further, to alert maltsters to the probability that unless contracts for next year offered substantially greater premiums over feed, land will be put down to set-aside instead of planted with barley.

Norfolk grows about one-third of the malting barley produced in the UK and Mr Maufe has campaigned long and hard for better prices. But even he was surprised and pleased that in the middle of a hectic harvest well over 100 farmers turned up. As he succinctly said: "It is unsustainable when the end product (beer) is sold at a handsome profit while the basic ingredient (malting barley) is produced at a loss."

As a result of the meeting a small committee was set up to talk direct to end users and try to persuade them not to kill the goose laying their golden eggs. Its primary objective is to achieve a minimum of £80/t for next year, and beyond that to negotiate a cost-plus standard contract. I wish the committee every success. But I fear it may take more than talk to make the maltsters change their ways. For they, like so many other industries these days, are ruled by short-term thinking. They may well take the view that it is more profitable to buy barley as cheaply as possible in the short-term even if UK growers stop producing it and they have to import in the longer term.

The only language such people understand, I fear, is that which results in the non-availability of their raw materials. That means a widespread and general decision not to grow malting barley, not just in Norfolk, but also across Britain and in as many of the other countries to which maltsters normally turn. Indeed, it was announced at the meeting that a contact had already been made in Denmark, where farmers are equally dissatisfied with the prices they are receiving for malting barley. That must be an avenue worth pursuing. In any case growing malting barley at a loss is unsustainable and the existence of set-aside allows another option. Perhaps such a threat will make maltsters relent.

The trouble is, of course, that Mr Maufes comment about the unsustainability of growing barley at a loss while the end product makes profits for someone else, is just as true of a whole range of commodities. The imbalance of profitability between one end of the food chain and the other is a matter for urgent attention. The sooner it is corrected and rebalanced to be fairer for all parties, the better. Maybe malting barley will show us the way.



of growing barley at a loss while the end product makes profits for someone else, is just as true for a whole range of commodities.

See more