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Tom Rigby, NFU Chairman for Lancashire, used to be on the NFU Council. He has been hoping to get help for members affected by OPs onto the list of 295 items of work in progress. There has never been official acknowledgement that any problems associated with organophosphates actually exist. He considers that the NFU has not yet done enough to help those whose health has been damaged by the chemicals. Mr Rigby considers that between 3,000-5,000 farmers were "dead, disabled, life-shortened" as a result of what they felt sure was OP poisoning with maybe twice as many less seriously affected with symptoms that will impair their health in later life. He has received more phone calls and letters on the subject of organophosphates than anything else and says that what OP victims he had met wanted more than anything else was recognition. The fact that so many farmers are victims of OP poisoning is beyond medical dispute; What is hard to prove is that their illness was caused by the sheep dip they were using a few hours earlier rather than anything else.

(He had hoped at the conference to be able to ask a question about this and also about the present foot and mouth policy. There was, unfortunately, no chanceto do so - but below is his report on the conference.

Report by Tom Rigby on NFU 2011 conference

"Is modern agriculture palatable?" was the title of a Q&A session at this year's NFU conference which, as chance would have it, coincided with the decision to withdraw the plans for Nocton superdairy.

On the first day of conference we had been told of the stark challenges now facing World agriculture and that ‘business as usual' is no longer an option - with my favourite quote being from Peter Kendall on Farming Today:

The panellists offered differing views on what was required but all agreed there is quite a gap between the changes that are necessary and what the public are currently happy to accept. As an experienced politician, Jim Paice knew that to say food is going to cost more in real terms will not go down well on the doorstep and for a while prevaricated from doing so; at any previous conference he may well have got away with it but for the first time a feed from Twitter was shown live on-screen and as the Chairman drew attention to one that said ‘Yes or No, Jim?' he finally conceded.

GM attracted much comment and sadly much of it ill-informed. Jim Paice told us that the GM potatoes being trialled in Norfolk are not really GM [check the DEFRA website here Jim, 21,000 base proteins added and not all come from potatoes, also E-Coli antibiotic-resistance genes which Margaret Beckett promised us would be phased out by 2005].

Food critic Jay Rayner told us consumers would be surprised to know how many GM products are already on UK supermarket shelves; I am not sure what he was implying but legally there aren't any as they would have to be labelled as such. The only product I am aware of as being there last year was Hershey chocolate bars but after consumer resistance they were reformulated using only non-GM ingredients for the EU market.
[I must admit at this point I was pacing up and down the aisles tearing my hair out hoping to attract the chairman's attention but next year I think I'll stay home and contribute via Twitter.]

By far the most coherent view of the way to a sustainable future was being offered by Patrick Holden, but sadly at this point he got mugged by the rest of the panel. As he was trying to explain, GM technology as currently used in the US had increased corporate control of the food chain led to a reduction of variety in the diet, causing starch/sugar/soya based obesity.

Not directly it doesn't and we can't abdicate personal responsibility, but humans are human and predisposed to making wrong choices and, given the opportunity, consuming to excess; (as ever at NFU events there was copious amounts of wine available, this year provided by M&S - of which one regional board chairman had inbibed to excess and ended up with his arm around the President's wife but it would be wrong to say it is entirely the fault of our corporate sponsor.)

A large shadow was cast over proceeding by the non-appearance of Lord Deben better known as John Gummer, former Minister of Agriculture and a pivotal figure in recent history. Indeed, some trace lack of public confidence in farming to the BSE crisis and one event in particular on May 6th 1990 at a Suffolk boat show when his daughter Cordelia posed for the camera eating a beefburger (Wikipedia suggests it was actually bitten into by an unnamed civil servant because she wouldn't).

To be fair to John, he was only trying to demonstrate his conviction that beef was safe and I believe he is was right. I have met the parents of many of the 174 victims of nvCJD and, given their age profile (and the fact some were life-long vegetarians), I think that the bovine brain fluids used in vaccines at the time were a far more likely route of infection for most - but as we start to re-introduce meat and bone meal into the feed chain we need to be sensitive.

Numerically a far greater human tragedy was caused by sheep dip during the 1980's and early 1990's and again John was pivotal; he took the decision to abandon compulsory sheep dipping (despite opposition from the NFU), made sure the products were labelled as toxic and put other safeguards in place. There are many farmers only alive today because of the action he took if only they knew it simply because he implemented the recommendations of a former government chief scientist, Solly Zuckerman, some twenty years earlier.

Many at conference thought all the antipathy towards modern farming could be sorted by better PR and a high burden of expectation placed on our new director of communication; she is good but not that good. The way to ensuring public confidence in food and farming is by making sure the authorities are open to public scrutiny at every opportunity.