March 2008

View from the Hill                                                           23rd February 2008


“But we must recognise, just as we have to meet this rising demand for food and the security of food supply that is important to our country that we have also to adapt to climate change. And you are again on the front line – the first to feel the impact of climate change, whether there are new pests and diseases, water shortages, storms and erosion. And, of course, the first to need to adapt. And we know that globally the livestock sector generates greenhouse gas emissions and over 30 per cent of them come from our consumption of food and drink. But I believe this is also an opportunity as well as a challenge, so that your potential for innovation is already bringing us new technologies and smart solutions. Farmers could become net energy exporters, you could set the pace on energy generation, and we want to work with you so that farm assets are part of the solution to climate change.”


Not my words, but those of Prime Minister Gordon Brown last Monday evening, when he addressed the National Farmers Union at their 100th anniversary conference in London.  He mentioned ‘Food Security’ twice.  It was also mentioned in speeches by the leaders of the other two main political parties, who also addressed the conference.  Maybe at last the message is getting through that we cannot allow UK agriculture to wither, and  rely solely on imported food.


The price of staple crops such as wheat, barley and oilseed rape has doubled worldwide over the last year, which is great for those who have some to sell, not so good for the livestock farmer who needs to buy in feed all year round for his pigs or chickens, and frankly disappointing for the consumer too, who will see rises in basic commodity prices.  This rise in prices is principally for two reasons: a succession of poor harvests around the world, leading to a depletion in world stocks in the last few years to a 30 year low, consumption has exceeded production for about three years now.  The fact that the western world now wants to reduce its dependence on imported oil by growing its own, and as a (half-hearted) nod towards reducing climate change, is also a factor.  The USA is now turning a very large amount of maize into bioethanol to use as road fuel.  We were told by an American visitor to the conference this week that this increase has not simply taken food off the market, but has been made possible by the widespread use of GM maize varieties, which have increased yields, and reduced the cost of production.  (Not sure if I can believe that entirely!)  This is an emotive subject in Europe, not surprisingly because the original introduction of GM crops to this country in particular was done in such a crass and cak-handed fashion.

Biotechnology features quite strongly in the press again at the moment.  The fact is that over 100 million hectares of genetically modified crops are grown around the world every year now, and after 10 years of people and animals consuming them, with no reported ill-effects, it may be time for Europe to look at this issue again.  There is no doubt that biotechnology offers huge advances in food productivity for mankind, and with world population predicted to rise from 6 billion now, to 9 billion by 2050, we haven’t a hope of feeding ourselves without employing some clever science that will enable us to do things like grow crops that are salt and drought tolerant on land that at the moment cannot sustain crops at all.  We are told that climate change is likely to raise sea levels in the medium to long term, and a very large proportion of the world’s most productive land lies within 1 metre of sea level.  Without wishing to be a snow blind GM evangelist, I do believe that we must engage with the science, test it rigorously, and not fall for emotional claptrap from luddite doom-mongers.


The other big subject of the conference was tuberculosis in cattle.  All speakers acknowledged that this devastating disease must be tackled, but varied in their sense of urgency and determination.  The audience gave Hilary Benn (secretary of state for agriculture) a bit of a hard time.  He assured us that he will make a decision on control of the disease reservoir in wildlife (badgers), but few of us expect it to be bold enough to sort the problem out properly.  Among many questions from the floor, one lady organic farmer told the minister about her tragic situation:  She has a herd of about 100 pedigree cows, it is a closed herd, which means that she buys in no cattle, (which would be one way of the disease getting into her stock), and the geography of her farm is such that nowhere can her stock come into contact with those of neighbours.  Yet her herd has broken down to TB, she has had a number of her valuable pedigree cows destroyed as reactors, their bloodlines are lost, and there is no way for her to replace them.  The only way the disease could have got into her cows is via badgers.  It is quite easy to test badgers for TB, and this is often done, however no-one is allowed to take steps to remove sick badgers.  The minister has it in his power to grant licences to control sick badgers; however he has not done so.  He is very concerned about a public reaction to this from a very vocal section of the population who do not fully understand the science of TB and the consequences for food production over large areas of our country.  The badger has become a great success story in wildlife terms, the legislation to protect them was brought in primarily to stop the cruelty of badger-baiting and similar ‘sports’, and very successful it was in stamping that out, however the creature is now more populous than it ever was, there are reputedly now more badgers in the countryside than foxes, and around here certainly more than hares, and I have heard no requests for protection of those species.  Badgers are colonizing wider and wider areas of countryside.  And as well as carrying TB, they do devastating damage to populations of wild ground-nesting birds, to hedgehogs, and to bumblebees, amongst others.  It is surely illogical that they still have protected status?

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