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New alliance launches campaign to save farming


By Robert Uhlig, Farming Correspondent
(Filed: 04/11/2002)


Zac Goldsmith, the millionaire environmentalist, will lead an alliance of
farmers, professional campaigners and consumer activists to Whitehall today
to challenge the Government and the National Farmers' Union over their
failure to rescue farming from the threat of extinction.

Frustrated by the lack of political will among existing rural organisations
and concerned at the failure of successive governments to develop a
long-term farming strategy, they have set up Farm, a campaigning group that
aims to tackle the real causes of the rural crisis.

Mr Goldsmith and the five farming members of Farm's management committee
will present Margaret Beckett, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Secretary, with a draft of the first Farm Bill since 1947.

The Bill sets out objectives for establishing a coherent, long-term strategy
for farming and food production, including national food security, fair
farmgate prices, sustaining rural communities, opportunities for new
entrants into farming and maintenance of countryside and wildlife.

They will also put up missing persons posters outside Defra's headquarters
at Smith Square in London to symbolise the 4,000 farmers a year driven out
of business in the past 50 years.

Many Farm supporters are former NFU members who left the union over concerns
it is too close to Government and interested only in furthering the
ambitions of "agribusiness" at the expense of the small, family and mixed
farms run by three quarters of Britain's farmers.

For some, foot and mouth, when the union ignored many members' calls for
vaccination, was the turning point. For others, it was the NFU leadership's
failure to address their concerns over GM crops.

Farm's founding members believe the wholesale disappearance of ordinary
small and medium-sized farms is undermining rural economies, damaging food
quality and security, endangering wildlife habitats and destroying the
familiar shape of the countryside.

Their list of villains, blamed for driving 50,000 farms out of business in
the past 50 years, includes the increasing control of the global food chain
by a few, vast "agrifood" companies; supermarket bullying; government
incompetence and indifference.

Farm believes farming will survive only by bringing consumers and farmers
together, making shoppers aware of the difficulties facing farmers and
forcing farmers to realise they need to view consumers as allies against the
marketing muscle of food processors and retailers.

Mr Goldsmith, who runs an 80-acre mixed organic farm near Tavistock, Devon,
has provided the initial funding. The son of the late Sir Jimmy Goldsmith
will step down from the leadership committee once Farm is established.

He said: "Farmers, consumers and environmentalists have the same interests -
a viable, sustainable and secure food supply - but we often see one another
as enemies. The NFU has overseen a steady decline in farming, and done
little to stop it, while alienating consumers.

"We are all being fleeced by the multinationals that dominate the food
chain.

"Farmers are being paid so little for their food that they are being forced
out of business, yet British food prices are among the highest in the world
and we pay farmers 2.6 billion a year in subsidies."

Fifty years ago, before a handful of multinational firms dominated the
global food chain, farmers received half of every pound spent on food. Now,
they get just 7.5 pence of every pound spent by shoppers; the bulk goes to
retailers and food processors.

John Sanderson, 46, a Suffolk dairy and arable farmer who is one of Farm's
founder members, said: "The whole culture of farming is threatened.

"If the kind of farmer that formed the backbone of rural England starts to
disappear it will start to affect the entire rural landscape and rural
community.

"We're now in a situation where for the first time in my farming career
we're considering leaving fields fallow because it's not worth growing a
crop on them.

"People should be concerned about what happens if hundreds and thousands of
farmers drift off the land and conglomerate agribusinesses take over. It's a
terrifying prospect."

Nicola Francis, 27, a Shropshire sheep and dairy farmer, said that with
Friesian bull calves fetching 10 each, "we find ourselves in the terrible
position of struggling to get a newborn calf to breathe, and then shooting
it because no one wants to buy it. It's soul destroying".

She added: "The NFU is good for legal problems but the people at the top are
totally out of touch with the issues concerning small and medium farmers.

"Everything looks so pretty round here but the truth is that half a mile
either side of us there used to be four dairy farms and now there's only two
left.

"Young people aren't going into farming, local businesses are being
decimated and the countryside is heading towards terminal decline unless we
do something fast."

In a survey of 533 family farmers, Farm found more than a quarter felt no
organisation represented their interests, and two thirds wanted a new body
to represent them.