Yesterday’s blog was about the ‘coming out’ of the NFU’s President Peter Kendall who told the government in England to switch its focus from biodiversity to production.
The RSPB was ‘disappointed’ and ‘saddened’ by the NFU’s position and as far as I can see that is the limit to wildlife NGO comment on this (but do let me know what I have missed) except that the excellent Miles King, of the excellent Grasslands Trust, wrote a very good blog around this subject.
Maybe no-one else noticed what the NFU President said on Wednesday, and it may have, rather strangely, taken this blog to bring Kendall’s extraordinary statement to the notice of the wildlife conservationists, or perhaps they were all just ignoring Peter’s comment and taking the advice of David and Dennis on this blog who told us that the President of the NFU didn’t speak for all farmers and no-one took any notice of him anyway (I paraphrase – read their comments on yesterday’s blog). First, the NFU President is elected every few years by a rather progressive voting system so we should assume that in general farmers (NFU members anyway – probably not organic farmers for example) agree with him (not necessarily on this particular issue but generally). So Peter is the farmers’ choice, not just a random farmer, and unless farmers speak out against his line on this issue then we can assume that NFU members broadly agree with him or don’t care enough to argue. And, second, the NFU President, whoever it is, is always in ‘election mode’ – that’s how the system works, so we can also assume that Peter is partly playing back to his members what he thinks they want to hear – he’s certainly no fool. Third, the NFU is a very strong lobby with government and what their President says does carry weight with politicians. That’s all the more likely to be true of the current Defra Ministers who are; Caroline Spelman, ex-NFU employee; James Paice, farmer; Richard Benyon, land owner and Lord Taylor of Holbeach, land owner. That’s a pretty balanced crew isn’t it (and not a Liberal Democrat to be seen, of course). So I don’t think we can or should ignore what the NFU President says as being unimportant. (And, Paul de Zylva – I’d be surprised if we see the Kendall line being criticised publicly by Defra Ministers).
Then there is the ‘we don’t like the farmland bird index’ line that is trotted out with a few doubts about its validity – in yesterday’s comments from Anthony Gibson who might just well be this Anthony Gibson who works for the NFU as a strategic communications consultant. As you know perfectly well Anthony, and if you don’t then you certainly should, the farmland bird index includes increasing and decreasing farmland species and has been in existence for well over a decade so it’s a bit late to decide you don’t like it and would like to change the rules. Of the species you suggest might enter the index two are non-native species that are released from captivity in millions each year – perhaps that is the NFU vision of a wildlife-rich countryside? Breed ’em up and let ’em out each year. Let’s do that with plants, insects, mammals, frogs, birds. Good plan!
I very much appreciate the comment by David, a farmer, yesterday. But to suggest that Peter Kendall is looking for the middle ground by running down the right wing is a bit odd. Peter has always been out there and there is no referee to show him a red card for his foul play. It’s only his own team mates who can sort him out – you made him captain of your team, the rest of us are just shocked by your team tactics (and player selection!).
Several commenters expressed amazement, and wondered why Peter was saying this stuff. Who knows? It might be that with wheat prices so high (and Peter is an arable farmer) then getting everyone behind the idea of higher yields is simply representing the interests of his members (or at least those of them selling wheat rather than buying it). It might be that with the expected disappointing outcome to the Campaign for the Farmed Environment it suits the NFU to downplay biodiversity and the environment – after all it’s a bit embarrassing to be associated with failure in a matter of importance so it’s much better to paint the failure as being in an area of little importance. Or it may be that Peter is wanting to feed the world. Who knows – I don’t?
But it is a bit difficult to believe that the NFU believes that it is acting on behalf of the starving masses across the globe. This is the organisation that still supports the growing of biofuels on land that could grow food – isn’t it? As Roderick Leslie suggests, the ‘push for food’ might become a ‘push for fuel’ if the economics and incentives changed. And there is enough food in the world right now and probably for the next 20 years if only less of it were wasted through rotting in many parts of the world where there is food shortage and being binned in the ‘developed’ world. We should be aiding food production abroad (rather than selling countries weapons) if we want to feed the world and providing better food storage facilities to help reduce food loss. Let’s switch the Single Farm Payments to doing that!
And fundamentally, both the GWCT and the RSPB have shown that you can increase biodiversity on farmland and maintain yields. Why isn’t the NFU President telling this message? Why doesn’t he say ‘If we farmers got our act together then we could increase farmland biodiversity – plants, insects and birds – shut up the moaning nature-lovers and then get on with increasing yields.’? Because that is almost certainly possible. But it seems that the NFU doesn’t want to give a message of hope. It seems intent on making an unnecessary conflict between production and nature. It doesn’t have to be like this but today the NFU is a fundamentally anti-environment organisation.
But just a little story of warning to the NFU. On the day that Peter Kendall was suggesting that biodiversity should be dumped by government I was at an event in Newcastle. I spoke in a debate, but at an earlier debate the motion was should food security or environment take precedence. Now it was a debate, and people need to take a position that they are given in a debate, but the farmer and academic speaking in favour of food security both went out of their way to be dismissive of wildlife in their addresses. This was unnecessary – but almost as though Peter Kendall were in the room since he was saying similar things elsewhere that very day – and lost them the debate. When, as Peter did this week, farmers’ (elected) leaders go out of their way to dismiss the needs of wildlife with spurious arguments then it is up to public policy and public opinion to step in and redress the balance.
It’s a tactically bad approach, Peter. If you continue it then people will start wondering why farming should get all that public money – and rightly so. The ‘social contract’ which is the basis for billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money going into farming is that farmers are nice to the environment because you can’t sell the environment and we all depend on it. Act as though you simply don’t give a damn and more people will wake up to the huge amounts of money going into farming and disappearing without any noticeable public benefit. And sound as though you don’t care – as you did this week – and the public and policy makers will make you act whether you care or not.
That’s why the line you peddled on Wednesday lost the debate in Newcastle on Wednesday – and if you don’t believe me then ask your Vice President Gwyn Jones, he was there.