04 Nov 2002 13:13

New UK farming pressure group challenges NFU


By John Joseph

LONDON, Nov 4 (Reuters) - A group of British farmers and leading
environmentalists launched a farming campaign group on Monday to rival the
National Farmers Union, which they accuse of being too close to government
and big business.

The new group, FARM, has been set up with funding of 200,000 pounds --
partly provided by the millionaire environmentalist Zac Goldsmith, son of
the late tycoon Sir Jimmy Goldsmith.

"The NFU only represents a third of farmers," FARM co-ordinator Robin
Maynard told Reuters on Monday. "It has also found it very difficult to
challenge the government, so we want an organisation that campaigns for

Lincolnshire farmer Peter Lundgren, one of FARM's founders, accused the NFU
of letting down the farming industry. "To lose 200,000 farmers since the end
of the Second World War is an indictment of any union," said Lundgren.

"The NFU has allowed big supermarkets and agribusiness to become too
powerful," he added. "Farmers have gone from being respected members of
society to being viewed as somewhere between bank managers and paedophiles."

On Monday, FARM handed over a draft farm bill to Margaret Beckett, Secretary
of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The bill calls for fair farmgate prices, help for rural communities,
opportunities for young people entering the industry and maintenance of the

The NFU rejected the accusation that the union's effectiveness had been
diluted by its links with government and business and said that "the last
thing" the farming industry needed was another pressure group.

"On any given day, the NFU could be negotiations with law-makers in
Brussels, talking to UK ministers and meeting with grass-roots members,"
said a NFU spokesman. "That is how a lobbying organisation works."

"We are far from complacent, but for those reasons and many more we rebut
strongly the suggestion that the NFU has failed."

Farming has had to come to terms with the devastation wrought by last year's
foot-and-mouth disease epidemic, in which millions of animals were
slaughtered and their carcasses burned at a cost of eight billion pounds.

Foot-and-mouth was the final straw for many farmers, already struggling to
make ends meet amid falling incomes, the impact of a strong pound on export
markets and a string of other livestock disasters, including mad cow disease
and swine fever.

Suffolk farmer John Sanderson, another of the new group's founders,
predicted that 50,000 farmers will be forced off the land over the next few
years. "We urge farmers to join us and fight for a viable future for
farming," he said.

FARM also wants to establish closer links with consumers -- "we have to get
the consumer onside because of their political influence," said Lundgren --
and persuade them that farmers are not "fat cat barley barons driving Land

Lundgren added that a farmer's average wage was 5,000 pounds -- a figure
well below the minimum wage -- and that the suicide rate among farmers is
one every 11 days.

His wife's farm needlework shop made more money than their arable holding.

FARM also put up "missing person" posters outside DEFRA, along with 11 empty
farm boiler-suits "hung out to dry", to represent the 11 farmers who have
gone out of business every day over the past 50 years.