Reading Mark Avery’s latest Blog reporting on Peter Kendall’s anti-biodiversity rhetoric at the Agriculture Industries Confederation Conference on wednesday, reminded me that I had perhaps subconsciously buried a similar experience I had a few weeks back. Having been reminded of it, I thought I would share it with you.
It was at the NFU fringe event at the Tory party Conference. This was a big event – lavish compared with other fringe events – a free hot buffet with a wide variety of very appetising looking food (all UK sourced no doubt). Sadly I had already had an early supper with NGO colleagues so I wasn’t able to judge just how good it was. It also looked like there was a free bar, but I resisted that temptation too.
It was a large basement room of an old hotel chock full of faded grandeur, and there was a real buzz in the room, almost bullish. There was plenty of friendly banter when Jim Paice the farm minister turned up – he looked very much in his element, in his natural constituency. No-one was haranguing him, actually no-one came up and talked to him for quite a while. I guessed there was no need – NFU meet him on a very regular basis; this event had a more celebratory feel to it. I noticed a couple of young people near the front of the audience already in their seats; looking really out of place. Dyed hair, tattoos etc. I wondered what they were doing there. Then I looked back to where Jim Paice was and saw Peter Kendall, president of the NFU, speaking energetically to the minister, explaining something in forceful terms. I spotted biodiversity minister Richard Benyon and had a very quick chat with him, agreeing to meet him the following day for a longer discussion about grassland and biodiversity issues.
It wasnt really surprising that the event had all 3 Defra junior ministers attending and talking; but more that Caroline Spelman the Secretary of State was not there, being unavoidably in India. No-one seemed disappointed though.
Richard Benyon spoke followed by new man Lord Taylor. Taylor spoke about his hope to bring “belief back to British Farming” and the huge potential for “sustainable” farming. He pointed back to his Taylor Review of agricultural science and advocated using science to achieve more production without damaging the environment (sustainable intensification). He stated “the UK needs to produce more and import less food”, and not “take food out of the mouths of the hungry”. He finished off his speech calling for farmers to recreate the network between farms and agricultural science ( with eg demonstration plots on farms).
Then star turn Peter Kendall took the microphone. He gave the Government a school report on their first year – “shows real promise, now needs to see action”. He explained he was working with them on a food plan – more food without damaging the environment (sustainable intensification). He praised the Govt’s bravery on Bovine TB and the McDonald report on farming regulation. He talked about “rules that work” for bTB and “taking regulation out of farming”. And he asked “how can we increase food production while enhancing the environment?”
Then the two young people stood up and made a rather quaint protest against the badger cull before being led out. There was a responding murmur around the room, something between surprise, amusement, revulsion and contempt. Kendall was unmoved – he has the look of a demagogue when he speaks; he is an effective speaker.
Then he got into his stride – and laid out his vision for the British Countryside – changes were needed in the countryside – “more polytunnels” to grow hothouse crops here instead of importing them, “more sheds, more fleece.” He argued for an increase in anaerobic digestion plants and precision technology, but “we want to make sure we can protect the environment.” The answer was “smart farming”, “using the planning system to encourage enterprise and deliver growth”. He welcomed the Government’s planning reform agenda.
Then he talked about the Common Agricultural Policy (this was before the reform proposals were announced but everyone knew what they would say). He said the CAP should “help more hinder less” and slammed the current system operating in England as a “uniquely complex discriminatory and badly delivered Single Farm payment.” Kendall argued passionately that the reformed CAP must “meet the need of farmers and put them on a competitive level with other Member States.” Measures must be “simple to monitor” and “dovetail with existing schemes” such as ELS.
Then the denouement – a Sunday Times article had been published the previous weekend (sorry no link allowed through the Murdoch paywall) blaming intensive farming for the disappearance of farmland wildlife. He found this claim “irritating and dangerous” and pointed to, of all places, the National Ecosystem Assessment. The NEA, he claimed, showed that we all needed to look at the “other factors” causing the disappearance – and he listed them:
Climate Change, Atmospheric Pollution, Cats, Predators, Urbanisation and Recreation.
Now, a few weeks later, Peter goes further –
“The point is we haven’t got a bio-diversity crisis in this country. Most of the key environmental indicators have been moving in the right direction and almost 70 per cent of farmland is covered by an agri-environment scheme.”
So there you have it – if farmland wildlife is disappearing it’s down to cats, foxes people walking their dogs, pollution – anything but farming. And actually, it isnt disappearing at all!
If you’re an NFU member – please start asking some difficult questions of your leaders.