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Monday, 13 August, 2001, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
National Farmers' Union president, Ben Gill, quizzed
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The Government has announced there are to be three independent inquiries in the wake of the foot and mouth crisis.

The main one will look into how the disease has been handled. There will also be a scientific review, and a commission on the future of farming and food.

The Government's been under pressure to announce a full public inquiry, but the Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that would take too long and cost too much.

The President of the National Farmers' Union, Ben Gill, says ministers are taking the right approach, but that he was puzzled as to why the inquiries took so long to announce.

Should there be a public inquiry? Could the foot-and-mouth crisis have been handled better by the government?



Christopher Lamb, Norwich, UK After years of subsidy from Government, presumably because the farmers are inefficient, why should the taxpayer be forced to compensate farmers for their own lack of control? Why did farmers not take out insurance?

Ben Gill:

I presume Christopher is referring to foot-and-mouth disease. But first let me tackle the first part of his assertion - years of subsidy he assumes are inefficient. The inefficiency is factually inaccurate. The reality is that we would far rather get the price from the market place. If you take the last decade or so alone, food prices at the retail point of sale - and this may come as a surprise to many consumers but it is mirrored in official statistics - have consistently undershot retail price inflation and the saving to the British consumer by those low food prices that has come at the expense of the producer, has been of the order 2 billion per year.

Our technical efficiency has gone ever-upwards and the length of time taken to buy key parts of food has gone downwards and we continue to improve in that arena. The problem is we have a common agricultural policy that was designed when we were short of food. It is patently wrong and inappropriate in today's age when we are not short of food - it gives wrong messages, it restricts us and it does not help us get the best from the market place. We desperately need a reform of the CAP that allows us to become more market orientated, get a better return from the market place and reduce that dependency and in fact change away from that dependency on a subsidy as we now know it and put it into other areas.

On the insurance part, there was insurance for consequential loss in terms of foot-and-mouth disease. Many farmers still have that although not having had an outbreak in Britain for 34 years, people were thinking that we would never have it again. In terms of the slaughter policy, the costs of such an insurance policy are so astronomical that it is almost akin to the problems the City had after the IRA bombing that nobody would take on the insurance policy of those buildings in the City until the Government went into help them.

This is not a unique British or European position. The Australian government, who are very much at the opposite poles in terms of the way they support agriculture, have similar procedures in place should they ever get foot-and-mouth disease into their country. It leaves you with one overriding question - why is it that Australia and New Zealand have not had foot-and-mouth in their country - in the case of Australia not for 120 years and yet we in Britain have had two dreadful diseases in this country in the last year - classical swine fever a year ago and foot-and-mouth disease this February. The answer is so clear for anybody who has travelled to Australia, New Zealand and North America, that they actually look after their food chain industry and understand the importance of bio-security at their borders, checking the products that are coming in, in a proper, effective and efficient way.


David E. Flavell, Liverpool, England Why is the taxpayer involved at all in sorting out the problems of the farming industry?

Ben Gill:

It is historic partly from the days when we were short of food and the preoccupation was to create incentives to produce more food. But it has become much more than that simply because farming has traditionally done much more than food production. In the last few decades, that has become much more into the centre stage with the environmental codes that are done and the countryside that is maintained.

The classic example is one I came across a few years ago in west Wales where certain environmental groups at the top of the hill had found some rare plants the previous year, negotiated a lease with the landowner and fenced off one hundred acres of that hillside to protect those plants from those evil farmers who were going to destroy the bio-diversity. I went up there a year later and what had happened? The plants were dead. Why? Because there were no sheep to graze off the rest of the plants growing in the area - they had been smothered out and the sheep in those conditions is the most marvellous selected Volmer breed that you can have.

It didn't just stop there - in the lowland Britain as well, the maintenance of hedges and trees - we have turned that round. We have seen in the last countryside survey that there were more hedges planted on farmland than there were taken out - the big negative is for motorways and house building. We have seen in recent surveys that came out a few weeks ago, that of the fifteen bird species that were at risk, fourteen had a turn round in their populations. Things are changing but all this costs money and has to be paid for in some way.


Pete, Yorkshire Do you feel that the Government's rural recovery chief Lord Haskins will make a difference? What do you think of his remarks that British farmer should imitate French farmers?

Ben Gill:

I think the last point highlights the extremely worrying point of what Lord Haskins has being saying. He is totally out of touch with reality, even though he farms himself down in Humberside.

I was looking at the latest statistics from a European perspective and rather than doing it on income, they do it on hours worked. So if you say there are three classes of farmers; those who work 100% of their time on farms, those who work between 100% and 50% and those who are less than 50% - the demographics for France and Britain are already identical. It is just over 50% work 100% of the time, about one-third work between 100% and 50% of the time and the rest is made up from those who work for less than 50% of their time on farms. So the difference between Britain and France does not exist at all. In fact France has gone through more dramatic cut-backs in recent years because they didn't do it earlier on.

What Lord Haskins has got to recognise is that you cannot simplistically analyse British agriculture because of its diversity, because it has so many variants in it in such a way that will be productive and he must recognise that he needs to sit down and listen a little to the problems that there are in Cumbria for example where he has been asked to do the rural recovery co-ordination and not the rest of the country and to do it in a sensitive way and not a brusque and dismissive way that he has done in the last few days.


Lewis Clarke, Leicester Do you think that the nationwide outbreak of foot-and-mouth will pose long term problems for the viability of farming in the UK with particular reference to sons and daughters taking the farm over when their parents retire?

Ben Gill:

It will certainly pose long-term problems for farmers in the UK and there is one particular class that is my biggest worry at the moment - that is those that have not been slaughtered out from foot-and-mouth but have under movement restriction - in some cases from February to now. Then add to that if those particular people are tenant farmers and don't have the capital backing that a landowner will have. I am well aware from some of the aid agencies that have been going round counselling these farmers, while not seeing individual figures, that they are seeing an alarming picture across the country. For many of these farmers it is certain if they are not dairy farmers and have not had milk to sell, they have had no income during that period and have had to live, in many cases, off charity and have seen not only their bank borrowings go up but go up higher than they would have done because they have been overstocked and they have had to buy additional feedings stuffs to compound it.

With regard to sons and daughters, the only way we are going to get young people to come back into farming is to address one key but very basic statement - farming's critical problems have built in the last five years from its lack of profitability and it only when we get profitability back into the industry will we get a sustainable industry that will encourage young people to come back into farming or at least stay there because many are being attracted out at the moment.


Enid Gwillim, Powys, South Wales Why is it that you are against vaccination, giving the reason that we lose the export trade yet we are still importing vaccinated meat?

Ben Gill:

The whole subject of vaccination has become rather emotive and has been very badly misrepresented, particularly of late, in some of the media. Some journalists have repeatedly made statements that are quite scurrilous and to my mind do not represent matters very effectively nor well.

Vaccination by anybody who comes from outside the farming community or indeed those in the farming community should be the logical answer to foot-and-mouth disease - it is for many of our diseases and I wish that it were in this case. The reality is that it isn't and why? One of the key reasons is that successive governments in Britain and around the world in the last five decades have repeated cut back on the basic research to develop a proper and effective vaccine. It is very different vaccinating in the midst of an outbreak as opposed to at a time when you haven't got it to prevent it happening.

Saudia Arabia has had a vaccination policy and in spite of that - in spite of the high bio-security - they are in a very hot area which doesn't make it easy for the virus to survive - they have succumbed to this strain of foot-and-mouth virus. A second example was a farmer member of ours who farms now in the southern part of England who had been managing estates in South America where they had vaccinated regularly on a twice-yearly basis. He wrote to me to say that during all his experience of vaccine, they still had a calf mortality of between 5% - 10% per annum.

All I would say to people who would dismiss that as trivia - if they had seen the pain that cattle go through when they suffer from foot-and-mouth; with the lining of the tongue paring off from the tongue in a matter of hours, with the feet so sensitive they can't stand, literally animals climbing up walls in pain and distress, they would follow very clearly the need to stamp this virus out. The only way to stamp it out as opposed to damping it down, which vaccination would do, is by killing them. That is not my words in isolation - the world reference body for all animal diseases based in Paris remains of the same view.


Mark, Derbyshire How do you think British farming will look in say five to ten years time?

Ben Gill:

I think it is going to change quite dramatically - probably a bit longer than five to 10 years. Let me give you a vision for 20 years. We have all heard a lot about climate change and global warming in the last few months. The Kyoto agreement with the failure to agree and then at the last minute the agreement at Bonn albeit without President Bush who seems to have taken a very blinkered viewpoint. Farmers, certainly throughout this country, have seen and experienced exceptions of weather in the last 12 months that are consistent with climate change.

I went to a village in Sussex last winter where they had just had a one in a one hundred year flood - but that was the third one in a one hundred year flood that they had last autumn. On my own farm in Yorkshire it destroyed virtually all our winter wheat crop. Those factors can be addressed by farming because the only way to take carbon dioxide out of the air is by a living plant and we can turn that round. It isn't just trees, it is plants that will take that carbon dioxide out of the air, rebalance the equilibrium and stop us using fossil fuels as a renewable raw material. I am thinking of simple things like starches that can be the base of so much that we need in society or indeed the very many speciality oils - not just in the ever-present oil seed rape - but many of the herb crops that we have traditionally grown but only grown in small quantities.

So I could see that by 2020, 25% of our land mass will be put into non-food crops, renewable raw materials for specific dedicated environmental schemes and the rest of the country will be farmed efficiently and effectively with due consideration to the environment and animal welfare but in a balance to the remaining 25%.

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