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Why the NFU should be culled

Zac Goldsmith

This useless, self-serving farming union has been betraying its members too long

THE NATIONAL Farmers’ Union is one of those eternal British institutions, like the Henley Regatta or the Scouts, that everyone has heard of but that rarely impinge on our consciousness. We just know that it’s there.

To anyone acquainted with the deep crisis in UK farming, the NFU’s low profile is indefensible. Agriculture in Britain has suffered a series of hammer blows in the past decade — BSE, swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease — that have damaged the whole rural community. In each case a bad situation has been made worse by government incompetence. But it has been the ever-tightening squeeze on farmers’ incomes exercised by the big supermarket chains that has proved fatal. The facts are shocking.



More than two thirds of our food is sold through just four chains of supermarkets. This year Tesco announced record profits of more than £2 billion. This extraordinary figure has been achieved, in part, by the relentless deployment of financial and lobbying muscle. One local authority after another has betrayed existing retailers by allowing Tesco (and its competitors) to establish hypermarkets and “metro” stores. Often these are targeted directly at the small, independent shops that help to create and sustain a sense of community. When one side has a war chest of £2 billion and can push prices down as required and the other is a family-run business, utterly unprepared for the retailing neutron bomb that a new superstore represents, there is only one outcome.

The other big losers are Britain’s farmers. Buyers for the major supermarkets exercise an unhealthy control over food producers — indeed, it is one of the most unequal relationships in the UK economy. Farmers are forced to take what they are offered for fear of being dropped in favour of more compliant producers.

As a result, farm-gate prices have dramatically fallen and in some instances farmers are paid less than the cost of production. Over the past 30 years their incomes have almost halved and last year alone they fell by 7.5 per cent. Consequently, many farmers have gone out of business. Shocking numbers of them have been driven to suicide.

So what has the NFU done? Not a lot. In 2000 the Competition Commission identified how the organisation was abusing its position to the detriment of farmers and against the public interest. Yet when a coalition of organisations, ranging from farmers’ groups to Friends of the Earth and the Women’s Institute, responded by setting up a campaign entitled Breaking the Armlock to fight for a legally enforceable code of practice, the NFU actively refused to support it.

It is clear that the NFU leadership has little appetite to take on abuses of supermarket power. The Tesco announcement of record profits was a perfect opportunity to highlight the plight of farmers. But anyone checking the NFU website would have seen no mention of the subject. Instead, there was something quite different: a solitary press release describing the NFU’s display stand at the Chelsea Flower Show. “Set within the Flower Pavilion,” went the cheery announcement, “it will feature English Meadows with a grazing topiary steer and sheep, stone walling, a running water feature . . .”

Even when it has been forced to address the issue of supermarket dominance the NFU has pulled its punches. Responding to pressure from its long-suffering members, it said: “There is a belief that there is now an imbalance of power in the supply chain and that this power is being abused. Whether, and indeed how, this power is being abused is open to debate.”

But the NFU’s reluctance to stand up for its members doesn’t end with the supermarkets. Time and again the organisation has backed away from supporting commonsense measures to revive the rural economy. For instance, while almost every farmers’ organisation has called for a shift in government policy to enable schools, hospitals and barracks wherever possible to buy locally produced food, the NFU has remained silent.

Given that the NFU is the single most powerful organisation purporting to represent farmers, with a whopping £20 million income, an estimated £40 million stashed in the bank and continual statutory access to the key decision-makers, the organisation’s mostly supine behaviour is inexcusable. But not inexplicable. The clue lies in the word statutory.

This relationship between the NFU and the Government was cemented by the 1947 Agriculture Act, which essentially set into law the involvement of the NFU in all aspects of agricultural policymaking. This has led to a cosy, even collusive, bond between ministers and their officials and NFU bigwigs. A seemingly endless supply of honours flows to senior members of the organisation. The past five presidents have been knighted. Being part of the establishment has its benefits.

The time for action on behalf of farmers is long overdue. That is why I am supporting two farmers, Derek Mead and David Handley, who have formed Better NFU, a pressure group. Its aim is simple: to change the direction and leadership of the organisation. In the NFU elections next year the group will have candidates for the three elected positions. It will be a tough contest, not least because NFU elections do not allow ordinary members the chance to vote, but, if it succeeds, farmers will at last have an organisation that represents their interests and isn’t afraid to do battle on their behalf.

The author is editor of the Ecologist magazine and runs a small farm in Devon