National Farmers' Union: The NFU's over-arching analysis of the global farming crisis

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There have been some recent indications that the NFU is inching its way into the 21st century in its analysis of the farming crisis.

Anthony Gibson, regional director of the NFU in the South West and perhaps one of the most well-regarded regional directors, on his return from an agricultural conference in Florence in 2002 stated in his column in the Western Morning News:

‘How do we protect rural society, rural culture...from the depredations of corporate juggernauts, powered by greed, sponsored by the US government and answerable to no-one but their shareholders? There is no more important question in world agriculture’73

In recent years, Ben Gill has begun to make some promising statements on global trade and the role that it played in causing classical swine fever and 'foot and mouth' disease.74 At the Royal Show June 2003, it seemed that the penny had finally dropped when he said that "Farmers are having to fight in an increasingly cut-throat marketplace, dealing with the might of major international companies." His solution to 'the "David and Goliath" situation created by globalisation' is for UK farmers to join co-operatives and form farmer-controlled businesses so that the domestic industry is in a better position to forge international alliances i.e. transnational co-operatives.75

Whilst it is exciting to hear Ben Gill finally casting blame on the agrifood corporations, its a shame that he couldn't bring himself to call for regulation to curb their power.

Many farmers in the audience would have shrugged their shoulders at the idea of co-operatives as the solution to the farming crisis. Whilst it may be part of the solution, without at least some regulation on multinational corporations, there is simply not the space for new international farmer's co-operatives to develop in anything other than niche markets. See for example, in the US, the largest farmer's co-operative, Farmland, the pork producer, who went bust trying to compete with Cargill, a huge US agribusiness in May 2002.76 Its also interesting that Gill cites Arla, the Danish farmer's co-op who are currently in the process of buying UK dairy processor, Express Dairies, as a stunning example of farmer's regaining power. If the competition authorities allow Arla to complete this transaction, the biggest dairy company in the UK will be owned by Danish farmers, not British farmers.

Besides, his words have none of the passion and anger of a campaigner who really believes that the supermarkets and the global food processors are essentially exploiting farmers, devastating the environment and destroying rural communities. In his Royal show speech, there was a definite air that the globalisation, the further liberalisation of agricultural markets and phasing out of subsidies is 'inevitable' and farmers will have to face up to this restructuring of the global food system as they can't resist it or fight the power of the multinationals.

This idea that 'big farms are best', and that UK farmers must grow bigger (through forming co-operatives or buying out smaller farms) so that they can compete on the world market is a definite current in NFU thinking dating from when Sean Rickard was chief economist at the NFU (see Appendix II). Not only does this policy fail to reflect that the liberalisation of agriculture has and will create huge environmental and social problems,77 but the policy is also to the detriment of its members, especially smaller farmers and new entrants to farming. It seems strange that a membership organisation would actively campaign for its members to be forced out of business.


72Britain's “Farm Assured Standards” on animal welfare - a scandal says new report 18th April 2002. 73Anthony Gibson comment, West Country Farming, Western Morning News, April 2002 74Quoted by Caroline Lucas MEP in "Foot and Mouth Disease - is Globalisation to blame?" Published in Green Socialist Magazine, April 2001 75"Farmers must club together in the face of globalisation" NFU press release 30th June 2003 76"Smithfield-Farmland deal no big surprise to numb industry" by Betsy Freese. Successful Farming Magazine 7/15/03 77 See forthcoming Corporate Watch briefing 'A Rough Guide to the Farming Crisis'. 24.07.03