19 March 1999

GMcontrol is all but impossible

The regulations covering the growing of GM experimental crops are a joke when bees and the wind can carry pollen very much further than the experts allow. After all, we get sand blown in from the Sahara and radiation from Russia.

D J Phillips

Shadbrook Farm, Staunton, Glos.

OSR stance can protect wildlife

The first genetically modified crop likely to be ready for commercial release, a herbicide-resistant form of oilseed rape, is shortly to undergo a four-year evaluation by the government to establish whether its widespread release would have impacts on wildlife.

However, this cautious and scientifically valid approach to environmental safety is inconsistent with recent government statements that the commercial release of this crop may be permitted before the evaluation period is complete and before the requisite scientific data has been collected and analysed. This contradictory government message has alarmed conservationists, including the RSPB and English Nature, but does not seem to have provoked a reaction from the farming community or their representatives.

Given that most farmers value wildlife and its conservation, it is difficult to understand why the agricultural community has failed to speak up on this issue.

For too long farmers have been vilified as the enemies of wildlife but they now have an historic opportunity to set the record straight. The time has come for British farmers and their representatives to stand up and be counted in the GM debate and insist that such crops are assessed fully for environmental safety before commercial release. A moratorium on the commercial release of GM crops until 2003 makes sense for farmers, conservationists and the environment. So let us stand together and tell the government what we think.

Dr Mark Avery

Director of conservation, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Sandy, Beds.

Unknown perils of genetics

As a medical scientist turned farmer, I wonder how many of your readers know what is put into an animal or plant to make it a GMO? A construct is inserted, so called in the trade because it has three parts: The desired gene, a marker gene and a promoter. The marker enables selection of cells in which insertion has succeeded for cloning, and the promoter does the inserting.

What might happen if the construct is eaten by humans, or other animals? The chance of either the desired or marker genes getting incorporated into the eaters body DNA is small but not impossible. But the consequences would be incalculable if it did. Either could easily get inserted into the bacteria that live in the guts. If that happened with an antibiotic resistance gene, we might end up with antibiotic-resistant E Coli. Promoters are usually viruses, or chunks of DNA from bacteria called plasmids. It is nonsense to say these cant get into the body: What about gastric flu?

If the GMO is the plant and the construct is in its pollen, I do not see how anyone can predict where it might or might not get to.

Is it true that possible consequences are tested for? The commercial companies trying to make money from GMOs do tests, but you would expect that they do the minimum required to get a licence for trials. There is research into the questions that people have considered, ranging from one-off ideas of academics seeking research grants to requests from regulatory bodies. But, by definition, no one can be researching questions that have not been considered.

It is years too soon for commercial GMOs. They may have some benefits that are desirable, but they are not necessary except to sustain commercial greed. Are British farmers really so gullible as to want to embrace this complexity without understanding it properly? Let the boffins boil DNA in their labs, but keep the products of their work off the market until much more wisdom can be found. Let us imitate the Canadians who are trying to keep a lid on GMOs, rather than the technologically-driven and gullible USA. We should opt out of this commercial race for short-term gain.

C W Burke

Hope Farm, Ashwater, Beaworthy, Devon.

Nothing against organic farms

Lord Peter Melchett (Letters, Mar 5) alleges that in his lifetime I have been wrong about every environmental issue to affect farming. He goes on to urge me to go for "the godsend of organic farming".

Come off it Peter. As Norfolk farmers we both know too much about one another to indulge in such rhetoric. I know, for instance, that your 800 acres in north-west Norfolk is not farmed organically. I also know, having visited it a number of times, that it is managed sensitively with due regard to the environment – just as I try to manage my own farm – in line with LEAF objectives, which I try to promote. Indeed your practice, rather than your words, would make you an ideal LEAF member.

None of which should be taken to mean I do not take organic farming seriously. As a director of Sentry Farming I am indirectly involved in the management of two organic farms. I am also associated with an animal feed company which supplies organic products. Organic farming is an important and growing niche market and by my associations, may I suggest, I recognise the fact.

What I reject is criticism from some organic adherents which implies that the produce of integrated farming, which represents a valuable ongoing option for more than 95% of UK farmers and is accepted by a growing number of consumers, is inferior. The organic lobby clearly believes it is good marketing to criticise the systems of other responsible farmers. And it has served them well because, for the present, their well heeled customers swallow everything they say. But organic farming is not the holy grail. It has food safety and environmental weaknesses too and I hope, for organic farmers sakes, that these are not found out by their trusting clients.

In these trying times for all farmers, would it not be better for us to recognise that all responsible farming systems have a place; that consumers have varying demands which need to be satisfied; and to stop sniping at one another – especially when, as in Peter Melchetts case, credibility is suspect.

David Richardson

White Rails Farm, Norwich.

Organic is not energy efficient

In reference to the letters (Feb 19) regarding the political nature of modern organic farming systems, does it really occupy the moral high ground?

Having worked on what is regarded as one of the countrys leading organic vegetable farms, I would like to suggest that this system is not energy efficient in terms of diesel use or sustainable as the Soil Association would have us believe.

During my time there I witnessed the use of small implements being used on tractors with a horsepower availability far in excess of that needed. The land was worked many times with various tools, manure spreading, then planting (sometimes replanting) spraying and picking. The continual working of soil with many equipment passes left a totally structure-less soil. This created a situation whereby the natural solifluction was greatly increased, to the extent that soil levels in the lower areas had visibly risen.

Mr Hughes (Feb 19) states that indirect energy consumption is reduced in an organic system and this is true for the likes of artificial fertiliser and agrochemical use. But indirect and direct energy consumption by the use of diesel per unit area was greater than that of any farming system I have experienced to date.

My understanding of the word sustainable in this context is to prolong, encourage and endure. Yet with the soil being abused, compacted and washed away, none of these descriptions seem to fit.

People may now say that I am against organic agriculture. On the contrary, I believe that it has a valuable place in our industry, but to believe that it is somehow better than conventional agriculture is wrong.

James Warne

Sidcup, Kent.

Produce organic food at home

My family eats only organic produce. How can I support British farmers when most organic food is imported? Locally produced food should be consumed in the interests of all. Surely farmers should be able to compete with organic produce flown in from abroad.

Also, I would not eat meat which is reared on genetically modified animal feed. Meat produced in this way will be boycotted once the public is aware of the possible dangers.

Mrs J Csoti

47 High View, Pinner, Middlesex.

Use talents & be competitive

T A Gwillim (Letters, Feb 19) is right to say that Britain has always been outward looking and has thrived on free trade. Perversely, he then suggests that we should join EMU at the earliest opportunity. In doing so, your correspondent thinks we will be "at the centre and not the margins", whatever that means, and that we will be better placed to avoid trade wars.

What matters is that Britain maintains its competitiveness. And it will only do this by relying upon and improving its unrivalled store of skills, flexibility, adaptability and experience in dealing with ever-changing world circumstances. What determines the health and vitality of an economy is not whether it forms part of a single currency area, but the talents and acumen of its people operating in a sympathetic business climate.

This climate should encourage low taxes, competitive labour and production costs, a modern infrastructure and a culture which is global and not just European.

The Fortress Europe option, offered by Mr Gwillim is, characterised by heavy-handed intervention and regulation, crippling social costs, massively unfunded pension liabilities, high and rising taxation and endemic institutional mismanagement and corruption at all levels. It is also undemocratic and unaccountable. It is, in short, just the sort of body liable to start a trade war and thereby fly in the face of the trend to worldwide tariff reduction.

Your correspondent mentions John Gummer in order to support his case. Mr Gummer, together with Messrs Clarke and Heseltine, were among those who held a gun to John Majors head throughout the last parliament and prevented him from taking a principled stand against unworkable and dangerous European unification. They are the last people whose advice should be taken on this issue.

Mrs Di Brooks

20 Northlands Road, Totton, Hants.

Free nutrients are not potash

The value of John Daltons contract spreading of biosolids from Welsh Water (Business, Mar 5) will no doubt be of interest to a number of farmers in his district. They should note however that the free nutrients available from such products are nitrogen and phosphate and not potash as reported in the article.

The productivity of biosolids for grass is such that potash can quickly become a problem unless properly balanced by separate potash applications. The PDA has produced a free advisory leaflet which covers this topic.

J D Hollies

Director general, The Potash Development Association, Brixtarw, Laugharne, Carmarthen.

Cereal imports bypass ACCS

We noted with interest your article (Business, Mar 12) about the importation of 3.05m tonnes of cereals into the UK last year.

Could we ask the importers if these cereals were grown on farms registered with ACCS? And if so, could they publish proof?

If they are not grown on ACCS-registered farms, are UKASTA, malters, supermarkets and NFU heirarchy attempting to stop the sale and use of these imports? Or do they demand only that British growers must submit to the indignity and expense of an idiotic and meaningless inspection by a private verification company?

British farmers would be well advised to ask this question of the next grain trader attempting to coerce them into paying out vast amounts of money to become registered with this useless scheme.

Why apply this bureaucratic nonsense only to British farmers when it is patently obvious that our overseas buyers are more than happy with our superb quality cereals, as witnessed by the record level of cereal exports?

Dick Lindley

Birkwood Farm, Altofts, Normanton, West Yorks.

HGCA levy a waste of money

I have just received yet another expensively produced HGCA communication. It comprises three separate envelopes all with the same contents, but this no doubt increases circulation.

Last autumn I went to one of their road shows and the best thing about it was the lunch. I am guessing wildly, but the HGCA must have an annual income approaching £10m from the levy paid on every tonne of cereals sold. Why is it that so much of the information we get in return is thoroughly old hat, much of which we have all heard before?

If there is no better use for this large sum of money, then the HGCA levy should be scrapped as should the oilseeds levy. The money could be better spent.

R P Headley

Tile Lodge Farm, Hoath Road, Hoath, Canterbury, Kent.

Did you farm in the early 1930s?

I am undertaking research for a Channel 4 documentary series about all aspects of the history of the countryside before and during WW2.

I would like to hear from people who have first-hand farming memories of the hard times caused by the agricultural depression in the early 1930s. Please write to me at the address below.

Mrs Jelbert

Testimony Films, 12 Great George Street, Bristol.

Family farms fighting back

There are definite signs that hard-pressed family farmers are fighting back. In our small parish it was decided by minority vote to make it compulsory to attend the local environmentally sensitive Latin enhancement classes and also the veterinary handwriting proficiency diagnosis guesswork workshops.

At last, when meeting numerous inspectors on their annual visits, which have been brought forward to a monthly basis, farmers are able to correct some misconceptions about their ability to read and write in just one language.

With the year 2000 approaching, it is essential that farmers can talk to inspectors in a language they can understand. For example uptius spoutius (pregnant) means the cow has not got a belly ache. A long squiggly line on a bottle of drugs supplied by the vet is the single common name for a wide range of medicines used regularly on all farm animals.

When approached for help with this initiative the NFU said it would be unfair on large, efficient, wealthy landlords to expect them to stop counting their subsidy monies and attend evening classes until such time as they had computers capable of doing this work.

Calling MAFF on its freephone service led to the following instructions: First press 0, then press 1, then 7, then 6, then 9, then 6, then 8, then 0, then 2, then 8, and then 6. After all this frustration, I find this is my own telephone number and I finish up talking to myself.

M T James

Hardings Leigh, Chawleigh, Devon.

Farmers cannot pass costs on

The letter from Mr Andrews of Northern Foods (Jan 22) was interesting, particularly as his ex-boss Lord Haskins announced in a speech at Oxford that farm assurance schemes are useless.

In saying that farmers must follow other sectors in the food chain, Mr Andrews forgets that other sectors can pass their costs on to consumers. Farmers cannot. We have more parasites and red tape on our backs.

With incomes dropping 56% last year, adding to costs is not an urgent priority.

ACCS is not a standard accepted by the whole supply chain. The rest of Europe has not accepted it and unless it does, on the same day as us, there will be illegal trade distortion between EU farmers.

Robert Robertson

Chairman, FSB agriculture committee, Down Barton Farm, St Nicholas-at-Wade, Birchington, Kent.

Dont consider free range eggs

With the unprofitability of much of farming, dont be tempted into one branch that has kept its head above water.

Battery cages may be banned in 10 years time but meanwhile they will continue to produce, and sell eggs at half the price of free range. The free range market is saturated. New units will only depress the price further, and cause the investor to wish he had put his money elsewhere. Be warned.

E J Smith

Clay Hall Farm, Bidford-on-Avon, Nr Alcester, Warks.


Talk about déja vu – the past weeks shenanigans and cobbled-together deal at the agricultural council reads like an poorly edited repeat of the MacSharry script. Thousands of farmers in the street and the usual lip-service to environmental goals, demands to cut all the budgets except ones own, and even our old friend modulation in the guise of the Austrian cap.

This last not only sounds like a rather inefficient form of family planning – thats almost what it turned out to be. It was designed to stop any more CAP budget increases by putting an upper limit on what any individual farmer can get. The ways to avoid its palpable discrimination were obvious and family planning would have been the easy way out. Im glad weve seen the back of it. MacSharry did not ride again.

The outcome is, nonetheless, deeply disappointing. It costs too much. It wont satisfy the coming GATT negotiations and the environmental package is pathetically small. There will be more milk quota but it will be distributed to the wrong people and getting rid of the whole system will still mean a major battle which we will have to start on immediately. This cannot be seen as the radical reform we need.

Indeed, when Mr Brown came to sell the deal to the Cabinet he emphasised the effect on the food budget of the average family. It cant have struck those who were still listening as much of an argument. The CAP budget goes up £5bn. Britain will be paying a good slodge of the extra. Agenda 2000 has in fact become Agenda 2004. Even then, Mr Brown will only be promising a cut of £70 a year in the food bill of a family of four. Shorn of its folksie electoral packaging, thats less than 34p a week a person in five years time. Well, Ill put more than 34p on the fact that in 2004 no one anywhere will notice a hapenny of difference at the check-out at Tesco.

The whole argument is misconceived. We ought to begin to remind people that food is too cheap and that most of what we pay doesnt go to the farmer but is the cost of preparing his produce for the microwaves of two income families.

In general Ive been a Nick Brown supporter but this kind of presentation is counter-productive. Nobody believes promises of cheaper jam tomorrow, and they are right – they wont be getting it.

Given that the settlement is not what we hoped, has all this trouble been worth the effort? Hasnt the "let each EU country sort itself out" brigade got a point? Certainly not. If every one of us had our own farm policy there would be subsidy competition among the nations which really care about their farmers, and subsidy starvation in countries like Britain whose governments can afford to ignore the farming vote. Then in the next GATT round the USA would take us to the cleaners one by one, dumping their product (GM or not) and driving our farmers out of business just as they did a century ago.

In the EU, British farmers have something worth defending – the support of nations who have not forgotten their roots in the countryside, and who will fight to keep the rural areas alive. Together we can manage much more radical change than this, alone we will be overwhelmed.

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