NFU -- "backing the poisoners"
2.Royal but essentially right
NOTE: The UK's National Farmers' Union (NFU) should not be confused with the farmers' orgnisations of the same name in North America, who've fought against corporate control.
1.Get with the anti-pesticide programme
The Guardian, 18 January 2009
*The National Farmers' Union must stop backing the poisoners, pull itself out of the 1970s and celebrate the call for healthier food
Once more the National Farmers' Union Ë† the lobby organisation for the people who grow our food Ë† is fighting a ludicrous campaign against healthier food.
A recent vote in the European parliament will result in a ban on a clutch of pesticide products deemed "hazardous" to human health. Backed by the majority of member states as well as by MEPs, the new pesticide legislation aims to halve the number of toxic products used in farming by the year 2013.
You'd expect British farmers Ë† the principal food suppliers to the people of these islands Ë† to be wholly behind such a plan. It's hard to see how a measure designed to reduce the toxic load on consumers could be anything other than good.
But showing a bizarre propensity for shooting itself in the foot, the NFU has taken the side of the polluters and the poisoners. The union warns darkly that without these chemicals yields of cereal crops such as wheat and barley could fall by one-third. Some staple vegetables such as carrots Ë† shock, horror Ë† might not be economic to grow in the UK at all.
Behind it all is the thinly veiled warning that if farmers aren't allowed to use the full, high-tech arsenal of pesticides, GM crops and animal factories they want, we're all eventually going to go short of food.
It's all a lot of nonsense, of course. Each year I manage to grow a perfectly decent crop of carrots in my garden without even the merest dusting of pesticide. More to the point, I know plenty of organic farmers who grow substantial carrot crops Ë† and cereal crops for that matter Ë† without any of the herbicides, insecticides and plant growth hormones so beloved of NFU members.
The difference is that organic farmers grow their crops on fertile soils enriched by traditional mixed farming methods with their clover leys and grazing livestock. The methods so stoutly defended by the NFU depend on pesticides only because their soils have been impoverished by decades of hammering with chemical fertilisers.
If today's farmers got their soils in decent shape they could manage perfectly well without this particular range of toxic products.
The fig leaf for the NFU's stance is, as always, "sound science". It's claimed that all pesticide products are rigorously tested, and their use today is in accordance with the best science. Let's not forget that in the 1980s it was the "best science" that obliged us all to go on eating contaminated meat even though half the nation's dairy cows were in the grip of mad cow disease.
The best science had it that the prion agent of the disease couldn't jump the species barrier. Then after 10 years the scientists decided well, maybe it could. And we all regretted that the policy-makers hadn't made more use of the precautionary principle.
When it comes to pesticide use there isn't a research group in the world that could assess with accuracy the health risks of long-term exposure to a clutch of different pesticide residues. In the light of this the EU has decided to ban the most hazardous chemicals, allowing time for the industry to adjust.
If British farmers cared a jot for the health of the national diet, I'd expect them to applaud this development, not jeer from the wings.
They could take their cue from the Co-op. Long before the EU began legislating, the Co-op retail chain decided unilaterally that it would ban the use by its suppliers of what it considered to be the most hazardous pesticides. At the time all had been approved for use in the UK. But the Co-op insisted that, for the sake of its customers, it would no longer permit them to be used in its products.
As expected there was an outcry from the chemical industry and its friends at the NFU. However, the supermarket group stuck to its guns and the offending chemicals were used no more. Though the industry warned of dire consequences, I see no evidence that the shelves of Co-op stores are today depleted of healthy vegetables.
The fact is we now live in a consumer age and the NFU needs to get to grips with the fact. NFU policy is still stuck somewhere in the 1970s when farmers and politicians pretty well decided what the people should eat, how it should be produced, even how much it should cost in the shops. The union still seems to expect policymakers to stitch up secret deals in support of the producer interest.
The Strasbourg vote shows those days have long gone. The policymakers recognise that what consumers want are not low-cost commodities, but better, healthier and more local foods. Why on earth can't the farmers celebrate this?
Instead of campaigning for the pesticide industry the NFU should set itself a new set of objectives. Why not start campaigning for healthier foods, a healthier countryside and a better future for family farms? That way the union might just about become relevant to the 21st century.
2.Royal but essentially right
The Guardian, 14 August 2008
Prince Charles's passionate tirade against GM crops has brought a predictable response from those with an interest in the technology. Biotech scientists have queued up to denounce his criticisms as "ill-informed".
They point out that GM crops are already being grown safely by 12 million farmers around the world. It would be morally indefensible, they claim, to ignore a technology that might provide solutions to the challenges of climate change and farmland degradation.
The Prince is also accused of a indulging in a scatter-gun "rant" against urbanisation and globalisation as if everything was the result of GM technology, which clearly it isn't.
Still, he must have expected this sort of reaction from the research industry. Over the years, they've been bankrolled to the tune of many billions of pounds from both the taxpayer and agribusiness corporations. Few areas of research have provided so many jobs for scientists.
Such is our reverence for cutting-edge science that it's not difficult for the research establishment to mobilise powerful support when it comes under attack. A Times leader the day after the Prince's outburst dismissed his utterances on GM crops as "obscurantism, reaction and superstition".
Despite the clamour, however, he is, as John Vidal observes, essentially right. The widespread adoption of GM crops may well threaten the world's food supply. It will probably throw millions of small farmers off the land, and it will almost certainly produce shanty cities of the sort he calls "unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unimaginable awfulness". While GM technology may not be the direct cause of such horrors, it will perpetuate the system of industrial agriculture that makes them inevitable.
It's a threat acknowledged in a 2008 report from the World Bank and UN agencies. Based on the work of more than 400 scientists, it concludes that the present system of food production Ë† and the way food is traded Ë† have led to an unequal distribution of benefits and to serious ecological damage. It was also contributing, the report found, to climate change.
The report's authors reject the idea that GM crops have a significant part to play in ending world hunger. What they want to see is more research targeted at protecting soils, water and forests. "We urgently need sustainable ways to produce food," says Professor Robert Watson, director of multi-disciplinary group which produced the report. At its launch, a group of eight international environmental and consumer organisations commented:
"This is a sobering account of the failure of industrial farming. Small-scale farmers using ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the food crisis and meet the needs of communities."
The World Bank report merely confirms what shrewd farmers have always known Ë† that small, mixed family farms produce more food per hectare than large farms. This applies equally to northern, industrial countries as to the south.
In Britain, George Henderson wrote a best-selling book called The Farming Ladder setting out how simple it would be to feed the population of these islands by switching to small-scale mixed farming. He proved it on the small farm he and his brother ran in the Cotswolds. During the second world war, it was producing so much food that the government brought farmers from all over Britain to look at it in the hope that they'd go home and do it themselves.
Tragically, governments around the world now use public subsidies to swap mixed farming for large-scale, intensive cropping. This system of food production is inherently unstable. It relies on huge inputs of fossil energy in the form of pesticides, nitrate fertilisers, diesel and machinery. And it steadily degrades the soil, making farmland less and less productive.
Large agribusiness companies Ë† together with their supporters in public science Ë† are now promoting GM crops as the solution to problems they themselves have created. It's a sticking plaster solution to a wound that urgently needs to be cleaned up. If we really want a safe and sustainable supply of food, we must acknowledge that large-scale grain production has failed and needs to be replaced by small mixed farms. Whether or not GM crops have a role in sustaining this sort of farming is a legitimate question for research.
Unfortunately, the Prince's own dedication to organic farming makes him a less effective advocate of reform than he deserves to be. Dominated as it is by the producer interest, the organic movement has allowed itself to be turned into a lucrative brand. Its contribution to the debate on sustainable agriculture has been blunted by supermarkets, which are happy to see it relegated to niche market status.
Nevertheless, Prince Charles is to be applauded for raising these issues: he deserves a pat on the back for speaking up.