Opinion: ‘Fake news’ is undermining the best of British agriculture

Fake news is nothing new. In 333BC, Alexander of Macedon received a letter from Darius III offering him half the Persian empire if he would only call off his invasion.

Knowing his own generals would gladly accept this offer, Alexander secretly burned the letter and forged a replacement, which insulted the Macedonian army and goaded his men to continue the war.

It was a lie that changed the course of history; Alexander went on to conquer the known world, and so become “the Great”.

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Today, we’ve never had more opportunity to be so well informed. Via universal education, a free press and the internet, millennia of accumulated human knowledge is at our fingertips.

As a species, we know more about our world than ever before. Yet despite this, many have never been less willing to accept reality.

It’s become too easy to retreat into the echo chamber of social media where the number of “likes” an opinion receives is frequently mistaken for its degree of accuracy; where depth of conviction is mistaken for truth.

Pedalling nonsense

Conventional agriculture has become a leading victim of this trend. An entire industry has been created in recent years devoted to pedalling nonsense about food and farming, frequently backed by ersatz “research” and meaningless celebrity endorsements.

From pesticides to bovine Tb; livestock greenhouse emissions to gene editing; reputable scientific evidence is dismissed, disparaged and denigrated, and its advocates decried as stooges of “big business”.

It doesn’t help that much of the mainstream media is non-specialist. In interviews with journalists, it strikes me how little many of these opinion-formers understand of issues they are, in turn, explaining.

Some are just deliberately incendiary or misleading. The same is true of our politicians, as they increasingly throw facts to the wind in order to secure short-term electoral advantage.

Green agenda

There’s a huge dichotomy in the “green” agenda. By obstructing progress – for example, over biotechnology – they do their supposed cause a great disservice.

Why campaign against a technique such as gene editing, which could minimise the need for artificial inputs while reducing hunger and lifting millions out of poverty?

Why attempt to ban benign old glyphosate when doing so will only force farmers to use greater volumes of alternatives, burn more diesel and turn more soil?

Why agitate against a short, sharp, targeted badger cull, and thereby condemn tens of thousands more cattle to slaughter, and many badgers to a lingering, diseased end?

Disinformation must be countered

As an industry, we must do more to defend the tools and techniques we need to produce safe, affordable, quality food. Disinformation must be countered at every juncture. Facts are facts; “alternative facts” are lies.

As for government, it must grasp the opportunity Brexit now presents to escape from the museum of agriculture that the EU is becoming, and allow the UK to become a global centre of agri-tech excellence, efficiency and productivity – and thus reducing our reliance on public funds.

This is part of the vision expressed by Defra secretary Michael Gove at the Oxford Farming Conference in January, and is to be warmly welcomed. But concrete policies must succeed aspirational soundbites.

Had Twitter existed in 333BC, no doubt Alexander’s generals would have seen Darius’ letter online, and the course of history would have been very different. But, come to think of it, they probably wouldn’t have believed it anyway.

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