National Farmers' Union: Examples of recent NFU Policies

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Supporting the introduction of Genetically Modified Crops

In March 2003, NFU Council members voted three to one in the favour of a motion that British farmers should be allowed to grow GM crops commercially [49].

Vice President, Michael Paske claims that the Council vote does not mean that the NFU now has a policy of supporting GM crops. The NFU will also hold regional meetings in conjunction with the Agriculture Environment and Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) across Britain to find out what British farmers think before coming up with their final policy.

The NFU Council vote comes despite the fact that GM crops have repeatedly caused problems for farmers. For example, during 2001, GM-contaminated oilseed rape seed was accidentally planted around Britain due to a mix up by multinational seed company, Advanta. This meant that UK farmers had to pull up and destroy their crops at huge cost and inconvenience as the GM crop was not yet approved for growing.

The NFU also claims to support organic farming. However, the Soil Association will not certify any crop as ‘organic’ if it is found to contain genetically modified material. With the widespread introduction of GM crops into this country, the pollen spread from GM crops would make it impossible for GM and organic crops to co-exist. In Canada, where GM crops are commercially planted, organic farmers no longer grow ‘organic’ oilseed rape as they cannot ensure that GM oilseed rape pollen has not cross-pollinated with it.

For most, however, this vote comes as no surprise as the NFU leadership has fairly consistently supported the introduction of GM crops. Back in 1999, Ben Gill rejected a call for a vote to be taken at the NFU annual meeting on whether GM crops should be supported or banned presumably because he feared that his members might call for a ban [50]. It has also transpired that two members of the NFU cereals committee accepted free trips to the USA in December 1998 courtesy of biotechnology giant, Monsanto, to attend a wheat seminar, after which they held discussions with the company about GM crops. The head of the NFU's biotechnology working group at the time also visited Monsanto as a guest of the US government[51].

At an NFU round-table forum on GM crops in late November 2002, a source who attended in the belief that the purpose of the meeting was to debate whether to support the introduction, found that the discussion was actually centred entirely on how to manage the introduction of commercial GM crops in the UK.

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  1. The support for GM crops within the NFU stretches from Ben Gill, dubbed by satirical magazine, Private Eye, as 'Biotech Ben' (see Appendix II) to a cabal of highly committed GM supporters and growers such as:Archie Montgomery, the current chair of the NFU Biotechnology working group;
  2. Guy Smith, NFU council member and member of Cropgen, a supposedly 'independent' pro-GM lobby group. Mr Smith had planned to take part in the government's GM farm scale trial programme, but agreed to abide by the results of a local parish referendum that voted 73.3% against the trial [52] [53].
  3. Dr David Carmichael, a GM grower, who sits on the Agriculture Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) - a government advisory body on GM crops. He is on the NFU Biotechnology working group and an NFU representative to the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC). This is the industry group overseeing the introduction of GM crops into the UK. He is also a director of the British Beet Research Organisation, which is a non-profit making organisation set up by British Sugar Plc and the NFU to commission and implement research on sugar beet, as well as a member of the International Institute of Beet Research (IIBR);[54]
  4. Bob Fiddaman, a GM grower as well as founder and former chairman of the NFU Biotechnology working group. He was also an NFU representative on SCIMAC. Fiddaman is now NFU Education and Employment chairman;[55]
  5. John Lampitt, NFU council member who sits on the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. He is the chairman of Farmer's World network. He also formerly worked marketing pesticides for Shell and AmChem in the USA. Lampitt is now the NFU representative on the board of the National Association of Farmer's Markets.
  6. Dr Graham Plastow, part of the NFU biotechnology working group, who works for Sygen International (formerly PIC group) on genomic biotechnology in animal breeding, and sits on the governing council of the Roslin Institute;
  7. Rad Thomas, a GM grower, and now on the NFU council. He is chairman of the NFU Alternative Crops Committee. He is also chairman of the NFU oils, proteins and fibres committee. Rad Thomas was formerly the master of the Quorn hunt[56].
  8. Dr Vernon Barber, former pro-GM Food Science Adviser to the National Farmer's Union. The position is now held by Elizabeth Hogben.
  9. Owen Yeatmen, GM grower, and Dorset NFU Regional Chairman.
  10. Simon Banfield, GM grower, former Dorset NFU Regional chairman

Once again, the NFU is seen to be out of touch with its grassroots members and the general public, in supporting the multinational agribusiness takeover of the seed supply and the Government's unpopular line.

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Opposing the proposed pesticides tax

Working alongside the Agricultural Engineers Association, the Crop Protection Association (formerly the British Agrochemicals Association who represent Monsanto Agriculture, Dow Agrosciences Ltd etc), the Country Land and Business Association (formerly the Country Landowners' Association), and UKASTA, (the United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association), the NFU managed to hold at bay UK government plans to introduce a pesticide tax, aimed at reducing the environmental and health dangers associated with pesticide use [57].

The NFU/Agrochemicals industry coalition succeeded in persuading the government that it should be given until 2006 to prove that a pesticide tax is unnecessary. Instead, farmers are being urged to join a Voluntary Initiative to make sure that ‘best possible practices’ are employed whilst spraying.

The NFU argument, that hard-pressed farmers could take no more financial burdens (an extra £150 million a year and an increase of about 25% to growers’ pesticide bills)is a reasonable argument[58]. However, teaming up with the producers of chemicals who have been responsible for massive environmental pollution, the contamination of our food, the poisoning of farmers and farmworkers worldwide and the promotion of chemical intensive methods of farming over and above all others, was not.

Claiming that the cause of the current crisis in farming is the strong pound The NFU President, Ben Gill claims that this ‘has hurt our exports and sucked in food produced abroad'[59]. The NFU has failed to consider the role of corporations and the World Trade Organisation as a major cause of the current global crisis in farming. The strength of the pound has definitely damaged the UK agricultural export market, however, even if the pound was weak and the UK had a huge export market (which it doesn't), it could not export its way out of the farming crisis.

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Favouring ‘diversification’ as the solution to falling farm incomes

By diversification, the NFU means that as well as farming, farmers should develop other businesses such as turning their farmhouses into ‘Bed and Breakfasts’, their land into Go-Karting tracks or setting up internet-businesses to market their produce etc. Whilst diversification isn’t the only solution that the NFU promotes, it is certainly the most unhelpful. What the NFU fails to recognise is that it is hard enough running a farm business without having to set up a whole new business that requires new skills. Many farmers feel that the National Farmer’s Union should instead be helping to make the production of food a profitable business again.

Attempting to undermine the Agricultural Wage Board Ben Gill, President of the NFU, objected to the government's decision to maintain the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), a committee designed to combat low pay in agriculture, one of the worst paid sectors in Britain. Then, following a pay award to farm workers by the AWB in October 2002, the NFU lodged papers to start a judicial review. Peter Allenson, Transport & General Worker's Union national secretary for agriculture branded the NFU's decision "ill informed and one which, in time, they'll no doubt come to regret."[60] NFU officials left a meeting in August 2002 after failing to achieve what they believed would have been a fair settlement to the wage issue. NFU President Ben Gill said: "Our challenge proposes that the decision taken by the board is invalid as the meeting was not quorate because of the resignation of employer representatives."[61]

In December 2002, the NFU abandoned its legal bid to overturn the pay award to farm workers. This was after they were told they did not have a case for judicial review. The judge supported the AWB’s assertion that it was legal to vote on the deal without the NFU being present.[62]

Supporting hunting

In April 2002, the NFU was the first farming organisation to support the Countryside Alliance's planned march in September 2002. Barney Holbeche, NFU head of parliamentary affairs, said the union did not have a problem with the Countryside Alliance's mission statement which stated that if people came on the march it reflected their support for hunting. "We have said for some years we are opposed to any legislation which reduces farmers' ability to control pests."[63] In the Countryside Alliance promotional material, it is clearly stated that,

“If hunting were banned, farmers would be faced with substantial new difficulties and costs in running their businesses. The NFU has made clear for many years that it would resist legislation which would have these adverse implications for farmers”.[64]

Other farmer leaders were more cautious - aware of the need for farmers to secure the support of the urban majority, and being politically astute enough to realise that the hunting debate is a side issue for farmers to the bigger structural problem of falling farmgate prices caused by corporate globalisation.[65]

The NFU has supported the 'Middle way' proposals for hunting to be 'licenced' as a 'compromise' position. As Labour MP Tony Banks has said,

“There is no such thing as licensed cruelty. This is a moral issue, and as soon as you try and compromise on a moral issue you end up hacking everybody off."[66]

Supporting the interests of big farmers in Europe

The NFU has been consistent in defending the rights of large landowning farmers at the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform negotiations. Essentially, the NFU’s core concern has been that large farmers might receive less by having a ceiling placed on the amount of subsidies that they can receive. The NFU has said ‘that changes must not result in any large or sudden redistribution in support to individuals’ and that ‘…ensuring each farm receives a fair allocation [of subsidies] will be critical.’[67] Such a position runs directly counter to what a majority of farmers believe would be a fair way to redistribute subsidies, most being pro-proper 'modulation' of subsidies i.e. tiered and tailored to size and scale, so giving a fairer distribution to smaller farmers.

The NFU, along with the British government, also supported the full decoupling of subsidy payments from production which will be to the detriment of smaller farmers. Larger farmers, as they have more land, will benefit more from the one-off area payment and environmental subsidies, as they will have more space for environmental management. Also, because they have bigger farms, they generally benefit from economies of scale which keep their production costs down. Smaller farmers, because the farmgate prices are so low, are only really surviving because of the production subsidies. This is the reason why the French government is supporting only partial decoupling i.e. smaller farmers in France will still receive some production subsidies.

When the final details of the CAP reform were announced on 26th June 2003, after 16 tortuous hours of negotiating, Ben Gill was quick to point out his victory and welcomed the fact that the plan to target larger farmers for extra cuts in aid payments had been dropped.[68]

The British Farm Standard also known as the 'Little Red Tractor', because of its logo, was set up by the NFU in October 1999 in response to a series of workshops with shoppers to find out what they wanted from British food. Launched by Tony Blair, the idea was to develop a symbol that highlighted that various production standards had been met concerning animal welfare, environmental welfare and food safety and hygiene.

In a report published in July 2002, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) found that people wrongly assume the Red Tractor logo indicates a British product, whereas in fact the logo can also be used on imported produce. Agency chairman, Sir John Krebs claimed that,

"Most people are thoroughly confused about assurance schemes. The number of different schemes and their various logos adds to the confusion. For example, consumers are not sure whether the Red Tractor logo is to do with country of origin, better standards of production, or better quality food. Food assurance schemes cover up to 85% of food production, but confusion surrounding them makes it difficult for consumers to make informed choices.”[69]

Friends of the Earth have gone further, stating:

"The Red Tractor allows for animals to be raised in the most intensive conditions and it does not stop the use of risky pesticides on fruit and vegetables so where are the consumer benefits? It is also difficult to see how the Red Tractor is going to help British farmers since it does not guarantee them a fair price and it does not stop supermarkets giving more shelf space to cheap imported produce."[70]

The FSA also found that the board overseeing the logo may need to improve its independence by reviewing its constitution and board of directors. It also suggested that the logo should cover environmental standards. The NFU Council and members, however, are resistant to environmental standards being included in the Red Tractor standard. At an NFU Council meeting in October 2002 Ben Gill applauded this resistance, saying it was "a good thing, as we have a violent reaction from environmental groups all the time".[71]

It isn’t just environmental campaigners who are unhappy about this decision. Joyce D'Silva of Compassion in World Farming, said the scheme seemed to be deliberately misleading the public "The only advice we can give to consumers is to ignore the Little Red Tractor logo completely and insist on free-range or organic produce."[72] See also Compassion in World Farming's website

Farmers are also unhappy with the Little Red Tractor scheme. They have found administering it expensive and an extra work burden. It places direct additional costs on farmers through a registration fee and paying for consultants, as well as requiring mountains of paperwork.

On the 12th November 2002 Tony Blair pledged his support to a £250,000 awareness raising campaign to encourage British consumers to look out for the logo.

49 “NFU to consult on GM crops” by Farmer's Weekly staff 18th March 2003

50 'UK NFU in GM ban row' from NLP Wessex. Viewed 23/7/03

51 ibid.

52 See Friends of the Earth press release 5th May 2000 'Residents vote against GM crops. Farmer to abide by outcome'.

53See Corporate Watch Biotechnology companies overview

54His farm is Glebe Farm, Bracebridge Heath, Lincolnshire.

55His farm is Wood Farm, Dodds Lane, Piccott's End, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire.

56His farm is Whatoff Lodge, Woodhouse, Loughborough.

57 Viewed 23/7/03

58MP's criticise shelving of pesticide tax' David Brown Agriculture Editor The Telegraph 1st March 2000

59‘Soul-destroying Farm Income Figures Released,’ NFU Press Release, 30th November 2000

60 23/7/03

61“NFU votes to rejoin pay talks” Isabel Davies and Johann Tasker, Farmers Weekly, 10 October 2002

62“NFU abandons wages fight”, Farmers Weekly Staff, Farmers Weekly Interactive, 11 December 2002

63“Unions wait and see on march” Isabel Davis, Farmer's Weekly 25th April 2002

64 Viewed 23/7/03

65“Unions wait and see on march” Isabel Davies, Farmer's Weekly, 25 April 2002

66"Blair triggers hunt ban revolt" Kamal Ahmed. The Observer 17 March 2002

67‘NFU Responds to CAP mid term review proposals’ NFU Press Release, 10 July 2002

68"Cautious welcome for CAP deal" Philip Clarke FWi 26th June 2003.

69‘Watchdog slates tractor logo’ by Johann Tasker. Farmers Weekly Interactive, 9th July 2002

70Press Association, 12 November 2002

71‘Resist backdoor green moves’ NFU Council section. Farmers Weekly, 18 October 2002

72Britain's “Farm Assured Standards” on animal welfare - a scandal says new report 18th April 2002.