ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

Date:  7 March 2001


ngin comment:

Lord Haskins is a major UK food industrialist and one of Blair's closest advisors. He will be speaking on consumer issues in relation to biotechnology at the upcoming US embassy sponsored Seeds of Opportunity conference chaired by Prof Philip Stott.

Comment from Karly Graham on an article by Haskins in today's Guardian:

He never misses a chance for a dig.  We really must stop our middle-class anti-GM campaigning - we're putting at risk 3 billion people!

From today's Guardian -

Excerpts (last paragraph):

'And finally, while there have been serious failures in scientific innovation  - most notably in the feeding of animal protein to cows - the benefits of  such innovation far exceed the harm.'
      [Tell that to the CJD families!}

'We must find better ways of monitoring scientific innovation, including  genetic modification. If we deny the science we put at risk the lives of 3bn additional global citizens anticipated in 30 years' time. They will go hungry if scientists fail to find ways of increasing global production of safe food
by 50%. This is not just a middle-class British issue, it is one which affects the billions of poor people in the world.'
*  *  *
Down on the farm

The Labour business leader presents a plan to rebuild the blighted British farming industry

Christopher Haskins - Wednesday March 7, 2001 - The Guardian

In the light of the disasters which have struck British farming in recent years, there is clearly a need for a radical review of agricultural markets and practices and the state's role as regulator and subsidiser. But the growing demand for a return to a pre-intensive, small farms environment would
be both highly undesirable and impractical in terms of public safety, animal welfare and consumer value.

When I joined the dairy industry 40 years ago, my father, a farmer in County Wicklow, paid his milkman £500 a year. Today on that same farm my son pays his milkman more than £20,000 a year. My father was pleased if he achieved a yield from a cow of 400 gallons. My son gets a yield of 1,500 gallons. My father could only feed 40 cows, my son feeds 150. My father was delighted to achieve a yield of a ton an acre for his wheat. Today we are disappointed if we do not get three-and-a-half tons.

Northern Dairies operated separate dairies to supply a population of 20,000 people. Express Dairies today has factories which supply a million people with milk. Forty years ago, people, mainly women, had to shop several times a week, visiting several different shops, because food did not keep very long and most food shops were specialist.

Today, busy families with both partners working can do their food shopping in one place once a week. Complaints about supermarkets may have some basis, but the vast majority of the British public would be up in arms if the convenience, variety and value offered by supermarkets was denied to them. If this remarkable increase in productivity had not taken place, and consumers
had to pay for the inflation of the past 40 years, the price of wheat would be more than £1,000 a ton instead of £70, and the farmer would be receiving more than £2 per litre for milk compared with the admittedly untenable existing price of about 18p. Consumers would be paying more than £2 for a loaf of bread, against less than 50p today, and a pint of milk would cost about £2 compared with less than 35p in a supermarket now.

Years ago, tuberculosis, mastitis and chronic lameness were rampant in dairy herds, the majority of pigs were fed swill, practically all livestock were sold through markets, chicken meat - which is generally recognised to be an essential part of a healthy diet - was far too expensive for the majority of the population and it was assumed that every raw chicken was a carrier of
salmonella. My father's cowshed was a threat to the dairyman, the cow, and those who drank the milk and would be shut down today.

Today, while still a scourge, tuberculosis, mastitis and lameness are relatively rare and controllable diseases in cows. Only 100 of our 12,000 pig producers are licensed to give swill to their pigs (and that is 100 too many, because of the potential risk of introducing infections such as foot and
mouth and swine fever). Traditional livestock markets have dwindled in size, as farmers have elected to sell their stock direct to abattoirs rather than through middlemen. There are still far too many unnecessary sheep transactions through markets, because they have been the catalyst for
spreading foot and mouth across the country in the past two weeks.

While the creation of motorways has resulted in livestock, as well as humans, moving much greater distances, people were walking pigs to London from the south-west in the 19th century, boatloads of store cattle came in from Ireland in the 50s to be transported across England, and the Wall's bacon factory in west London bought live pigs from all over the country.

Although people are understandably anxious about the intensive production methods of the poultry industry, almost everyone in this country now eats chicken, and the levels of salmonella, though still unacceptably high, are far less than they were a generation ago. If we wanted to recreate the
country side of 40 years ago, either the consumer or the taxpayer would have to pay at least twice as much (an extra £50bn) for food. If food prices in real terms matched those of 40 years ago, rickets would remain a widespread problem because poor people could not afford enough milk, and tuberculosis and foot and mouth would be an endemic scourge.

The standards of food safety which had to be acceptable in those days would result in practically every farm and food factory being shut down today. A generation ago, Britain imported more than two-thirds of its food, whereas today that figure is less than a third, thereby contributing to a reduced trade deficit and a stronger, more stable currency.

Furthermore, if we wanted to transform our food market to either a highly priced or massively subsidised one, we would have to withdraw from the European Union unless we could persuade all our partners to follow suit. And, in the unlikely event that Europe followed our somewhat eccentric route, we would have to reverse all our commitments to global free trade and
reintroduce protectionist barriers against food imports from North America - which would in turn use barriers against our manufacturing exports.

But while acknowledging that the structural, technological and scientific revolution of agriculture in Britain and the rest of the world has contributed significantly to our health and prosperity, especially that of the poor, the young and the old, it is also necessary to recognise the many
shortcomings and potential dangers arising out of modern farming and food processing methods.

Twenty years ago, arable farmers recklessly applied fertilisers and pesticides to their crops, and antibiotics to their animals. Although levels have reduced significantly, much more can be done to make their application compati ble with a sustainable environment without impairing economic
viability and to reduce the use of animal medicines by paying more attention to the prevention of disease.

Pigswill should be banned, and all livestock should move direct from farm to slaughterhouse without passing through disease-spreading markets. The markets will still play a role in moving cattle from breeding farms to fattening farms, but there is no need for animals to go through several transactions before reaching their final destination.

The live export of livestock for slaughter on the continent is unnecessary, adds extra cost and disease-carrying risk, as well as causing too much stress to the animals. Over-intensive methods in pig, and especially poultry production, need to be reviewed, but only by agreement with our European Union partners and North America.

One possible benefit arising out of the disaster of BSE is that we can at last reform the common agricultural policy (CAP) which is to blame for many disturbing and unsatisfactory practices. Subsidies encourage over-intensive methods, enabling farmers to plough up pastures for cereal production which are much more suitable for environmentally-friendly grass. The subsidy system
is easily corrupted by middlemen. Its cost, while being minuscule compared with the proposal to create the countryside of the past, is still much too high.

The CAP should be renamed the common environmental policy and redesigned, so that farmers have to earn a right to public support rather than being automatically entitled to it. They would be rewarded according to the environmental and husbandry standards they achieved by a system of farm accreditation which might, for example, have prevented the practices which probably initiated the current foot and mouth outbreak. It could be adopted to incentivise the less environmentally-conscious small farmers of new European Union members, such as Poland.

t could be made flexible to meet the varying environmental needs of regions and countries. It would be consistent with free, fair global trade. And it would probably cost less. Farmers must also change their attitudes - from a culture of dependency to one of enterprise. Many have already developed non-farming enterprises and alternative work opportunities to supplement their income. Much more can be done.

Farmers must be more sensitive to the views of others in society, but the latter must not be unreasonably obstructive about plans to increase business activity in the countryside. As long as the supply of food exceeds demand in the market, there will be downward pressure on prices from consumers and, therefore, from retailers.

In other countries, even the US, farmers have created cooperatives to strengthen their buying and selling power. Such co-operation, though growing slowly in Britain, is very underdeveloped. Powerful competition laws already control retailer behaviour, but there is a strong case for codes of best practice between suppliers and retailers which would reinforce the obligation
of retailers to be fair in their dealings with their suppliers.

And finally, while there have been serious failures in scientific innovation - most notably in the feeding of animal protein to cows - the benefits of such innovation far exceed the harm. We must find better ways of monitoring scientific innovation, including genetic modification. If we deny the science we put at risk the lives of 3bn additional global citizens anticipated in 30 years' time. They will go hungry if scientists fail to find ways of increasing global production of safe food by 50%. This is not just a middle-class British issue, it is one which affects the billions of poor people in the world.

Christopher Haskins is chairman of Northern Foods plc


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