Opinion : David Richardson 19/11/04

HAVING WRITTEN last week’s comments on the NFU’s new communications policy, I was forced to think carefully how I should approach a talk I was to give to a U3A club in Suffolk.

The U3A stands for University of the 3rd Age. Its members are professionals over 55 who may have retired, but who wish to keep their minds active. They study different subjects each month listening to speakers from within their membership as well as outsiders. There are no farmers in the Bury St Edmunds group, so I was asked to speak to them about “Food, Farming and the Environment”.

It is easy to decide what to say to farmers. Talk about the collapse of commodity prices, the growing number of regulations, CAP reform and you can establish an immediate rapport. They are all subject to the same frustrations. I call regularly for changes in such matters in these columns because I assume I am writing to a readership with similar problems to myself.

But as I prepared my notes for the U3A, I quickly realised that retired professionals from other walks of life might listen politely to such comments, but would be unlikely to be impressed. They would be more interested, I reasoned, to hear about those aspects of farming most likely to affect their lives. I further realised, and this was confirmed on the day, that the people I would be speaking to would be highly intelligent and well informed.

A note I had previously received from the chairman of the meeting indicated that his members would like to gain some understanding of different farming methods and their effects on the environment, of the differences between organic and conventional systems, and the roles of government, the EU and supermarkets in food policy. I tackled all those topics as objectively as possible while trying to avoid jargon. I spent most of my time explaining in plain language the new policies under which farmers would have to work after CAP reform.

consumer viewpoint

In short, I spoke on the same subjects as I would have to a farming audience, but tried to approach them from the consumers’ viewpoint. I set the scene by reminding the audience that the UK balance of payments was running at a record deficit and that the food trade gap had increased over recent years from £6bn to more than £10bn. I suggested that new EU policies towards farming would accelerate that trend by reducing domestic production and increasing imports still further.

That in turn, I continued, would lead to a decline in UK food self sufficiency at a time when international terrorism is causing intense concern, when global warming was becoming accepted as a reality that might make food production more problematical, when demand for food from countries like China was increasing exponentially, and when the population of the world was set to rise to 9bn within a generation. How much value do you place on food security? I asked. Most of my audience were old enough to remember ration books and the answer was – a great deal.

There were other dangers, too, that I suggested might flow from such problems. If farming here became non-viable long-term the British countryside with millions of acres uncropped would look very different and much less attractive. And with farmers from countries like Brazil replacing the food no longer produced here by exploiting cheap labour and destroying vast areas of rainforest, the world would be put at unacceptable risk. Rainforest is the biggest carbon sink in the world and produces up to 50% of the oxygen we breathe.

By the end of the day practically the entire audience was on my and, by implication, farmers’ side. They concluded from what I had said that this country does not actually have a food policy and that as CAP reform measures become fully operative we will be relying on a global free-for-all. They were appalled and asked, “What can we do?”

public opinion

I suggested they should tell as many others as possible about their concerns including their MPs. They were the kind of people who will probably do it out of concern for themselves and their grandchildren. Our industry needs more friends like these to help swing public opinion our way. But the facts must be presented to them in ways they find compelling and can understand.

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