Is there a crisis in the countryside? Certainly not when it comes to biodiversity, argues farm leader Peter Kendall.
After all, he says, fertiliser and pesticide applications and greenhouse gas emissions have all fallen over recent years. Meanwhile, environmental stewardship has been a resounding success.
The government should switch its focus from biodiversity and concentrate on food production to make the most of British agriculture’s potential for growth, the NFU president told the Agricultural Industries Confederation in Peterborough.
As one might expect, this was music to farming delegates at the AIC conference. But it infuriated conservationists who accused Mr Kendall and the NFU of pushing food production too hard and underplaying the problems of biodiversity loss.
RSPB conservation director Martin Harper said he was “saddened” by the speech, which threatened to undermine all the hard work being done by farmers, the government and conservationists to help threatened farmland wildlife.
Mr Kendall later said he had been misunderstood. The challenge was more complex and difficult than just lifting productivity, he added. It had to be done at the same time as reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.
This is just one example of how pressure groups ultimately influence the way we farm. They monitor the speeches of farm leaders, lobby government ministers and respond to public consultations. And, of course, they run high profile campaigns to get their message across.
The latest issue of Farmers Weekly (25 November) profiles 20 of the most influential non-farming pressure groups when it comes to British agriculture. From animal welfare organisations to environmental groups and food campaigners and political lobbyists, they all have an opinion on what’s best for farming.
Some of these campaigners are single-issue pressure groups. Some are wider in their nature. Not all consider themselves to be anti-farming – indeed, some of them claim to be critical friends of the industry, rather than out-and-out opponents.
We might not like what these groups are saying. And the chances are that we like what they stand for even less. But we dismiss them at our peril. They are highly influential and – dare we say it – often set the agricultural policy agenda at a national and European level.
Lobbying is big business. Many of these groups have millions of pounds and thousands of members. Others have harnessed the power of the internet and social media to argue their case and garner support from the wider public.
If farmers are to seize back the initiative from these pressure groups, agriculture must become more sophisticated in the way it fights its corner. If we don’t have our voice heard when it comes to the big issues, someone else will.
That will mean we’ll be more likely to lose arguments and see outcomes which are bad for farming. And that, frankly, would be bad news for everyone.
This blog post was published as the leader comment article for Farmers Weekly on Friday, 25 November 2011. This issue of the magazine includes a detailed study of the Top 20 non-farming pressure groups seeking to influence UK agriculture.
Photo credit: Akbar Sim / Flickr