Why we must seize back the farming initiative

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

5 Comments

  1. Johann Tasker

    26 November, 2011 at 9:02 am

    I’ve added a link to the the online version of the article – http://www.fwi.co.uk/business/farming-under-fire/ – and inserted the word “non-farming” to the blog post above.

  2. Hi Johann,

    reading the blog text on its own, it doesn’t reflect the perspective of the article, as you write about

    “20 of the most influential pressure groups when it comes to British agriculture”.

    Could you add in a link through to the article?

    The article’s a bit of fun, but not to be taken too seriously!

    I’d be very interested in your comments on my last 2 blog posts about the biodiversity crisis and productivity crisis.

  3. Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money go into farming as income support for the rich as well as the poor, those who ignore wildlife as well as those who care for it, and the bad as well as the good farmers. I’d like more of my money to go to the poor, the wildlife carers and the good. Surely I’m allowed a say on how and whether farmers get my money.

  4. Johann Tasker

    25 November, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Hi Miles –

    This blog post was written to accompany a five-page feature in Farmers Weekly called “Farming Under Fire – 20 pressure groups with your business in their sights”.

    The article profiled 20 non-farming pressure groups seeking to influence agriculture – we deliberately excluded pressure groups campaigning on behalf of farmers.

  5. Come off it Johann. The number one most influential pressure group influencing farming is the NFU. Coming in a not terribly close second is the CLA, followed by the TFA, the NBA, the NSA, EBLEX, RICS etc etc.

    The NFU sets the farming agenda with ministers and has a highly effective lobbying team both in Westminster and Brussels. That it can do this despite only having a relatively small membership of 50,000 is a testament to its effectiveness at lobbying, regardless of whether you agree with its aims. Of course it does have some reasonably influential supporters in the agri-industry, with limitless lobbying buying power – that may just help.

    It will be interesting to see whether we start to hear the “productivity has to take priority now” argument being repeated by MPs in Parliamentary debates over the coming 12 months.

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