29 May 1998


Farm minister

Jack Cunninghams

vision of a cheap and

competitive agriculture

is utterly flawed,

according to

Malcolm Read

&#8226 Malcolm Read is a tenant farmer operating on 260ha (650 acres) near Salisbury, Wilts, with his brother and two sons. They have a 110-cow dairy herd and grow winter cereals. Their farm is part of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

The call for a ban on the use of antibiotic growth promoters by the House of Commons agriculture select committee must have caused anxiety not only among livestock producers but cereal growers like myself.

After all intensive pig and poultry producers are our best customers. A great deal of home-grown wheat is used to produce this popular white meat. A friend who has worked with broilers for several years reckons that by introducing antibiotics into the feed it is possible to keep twice as many birds on the same floor space as would otherwise be possible. So an antibiotic ban would halve the production of birds until new houses could be built. That would have a dramatic effect on the retail price, which is one reason why the minister will be in no great hurry to introduce a ban.

There is however another reason. Last October he issued a Press release which amounted to his vision for farming. His big idea is that he wants us to become more competitive, chiefly by having our subsidies slashed. That is the real reason why he will not apply for the CAP agri-money package. He seems to think that if we are squeezed hard enough we shall realise his dream of creating a leaner and fitter farming industry in Europe, capable of conforming with GATT/WTO aspirations and the like.

But now that intensive white meat production has been put into the spotlight, it can be seen as a perfect example of the sort of food producing industry implied by the ministers vision. It is highly competitive; it receives no subsidy; and it delivers a very cheap product for the supermarket customer. But it can only function by putting antibiotics into the feed. The minister is therefore caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. How can Dr Cunningham, who banned beef on the bone, possibly ignore the possibility that feeding antibiotics to intensively reared animals could lead to the creation of antibiotic resistant "super-bugs".

But on the other hand, if he acts to ban these growth promoters, he will have to admit that his dream of a more competitive farming industry, producing cheaper food with less subsidy input, was a foolish fantasy. So while the minister ponders what response to make to the select committees recommendation would do the least damage to his already shredded credibility, farmers, and particularly their leaders, would do well to take the initiative in this matter.

We should realise that food safety and, just as influential, the perception of food safety, will prove to be a far more important factor for food producers in the future than trying to pursue the highly nebulous concept of competitiveness. NFU leaders, who seem to be currently obsessed with trying to dance to the ministers tune on competitiveness and the next WTO round, should realise that this agenda stands discredited in the light of the antibiotic feed supplement controversy.

Competitiveness is a sterile, negative, and indeed malign concept in the context of food production. It can lead only to a series of dead-end situation, like the controversy over antibiotic feed supplements; like the question of whether beef should be produced with the aid of hormones, or milk with the aid of BST, or indeed whether genetic modification is a good or a bad thing.

Take away the insane concept of competitiveness in farming and we can forget all of these things. Now that we are able to supply the public with as much food as they require, we should be able to concentrate on supplying better quality food. We should not be put under misguided pressure to supply cheaper food and, most of all, we should not have to put up with the likes of Dr Cunningham, whose arrogance is matched only by his ignorance.

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