The NFU is suffering from an identity crisis. It believes that representing the farming sector means that it should represent the interests of the agro-chemicals companies, big food processors, corporate-owned single commodity farms and supermarkets as well as small, mixed and organic farms. Many would consider that these big corporations are working against the interests of small and family farms and the long term economic and environmental sustainability of farming worldwide and that one organisation cannot effectively represent their very different interests.
Perhaps the most blatant example of this ‘identity crisis’ is the revelation that the NFU has an investment portfolio valued at £30 million which includes shares in five biotechnology companies, including Monsanto, as well as Tesco and Barclay’s Bank.27 The choice of Tesco is particularly controversial given complaints by farmers about treatment by supermarkets. Barclay’s bank has also been heavily criticised for having closed 300 rural branches across Britain; deeply affecting the viability of rural communities.
The NFU insists that these shares were purchased purely on a financial basis, but many would question this assertion, especially as regards its investment in the the biotech sector. This is certainly not considered a safe and secure financial investment in the current climate. In any case, these investments show huge insensitivity to the fate of farmers and communities, and are incompatible with the NFU’s presentation of itself as a body that can speak impartially about GM technology.
Links with biotechnology and agrochemical/ agro-industrial companies
In addition to the NFU investing in biotechnology companies, several key council members have conducted government sponsored GM farm-scale trials on their land. It is likely that they were paid around £10,000 for each trial planted.28 See ‘Examples of NFU policies’.
The NFU’s vision for the future of farming certainly involves big corporations. Part of this includes diversification into non-food crops, such as bio-fuels (willow, oilseed rape and miscanthus), ethanol and fibres. The NFU sits alongside DuPont, Cargill and Syngenta and others on the Alternative Crop Technology Interaction Network (ACTIN).29 The involvement of corporations like these in US farming has reduced many farmers to contract growers depedent on a single corporation for their seed, chemical inputs, processing and selling.
In response to government proposals for a pesticide tax aimed at reducing pesticide use, the NFU teamed up with pesticide manufacturers to oppose the plan (see ‘Examples of NFU policies’).
Getting cosy with the supermarkets and major food processors
The most serious long-term issue facing farmers is that of falling farmgate prices. Sometimes the prices paid for produce by the supermarkets and big food processors are less than it costs the farmer to produce them. As with any business, farmers cannot keep on going if they can’t make a living (although some will go on until every penny is spent), and many farmers are being forced to abandon their farms and their way of life because farm gate prices are so low. The reason why the big food multinationals can force down the price they pay to farmers is because they are global in scope and can play farmers off against each other around the world. As there are relatively few food multinationals compared to the billion or so farmers worldwide, they are in a position to set the world prices and tie farmers into a position where if they don’t accept the prices they will not be able to sell their produce elsewhere. (see Corporate Watch publication,‘What’s Wrong with Supermarkets’).
The NFU has been very reticent about tackling this issue as it would put them in direct conflict with the supermarkets and other corporations responsible. Below are a few examples of how the NFU has completely failed to deal with issues of corporate power.
“Farming Counts” campaign
In September 2002, the NFU launched a national campaign, Farming Counts, “to demonstrate what farming means to Britain – its food industry, its countryside and its economy”. One focus of the campaign was to highlight the difference between retail prices and the farmgate price. Instead of challenging the supermarkets and the role they play in this price disparity, however, the NFU brushed over the issue, merely blaming the farming crisis on, amongst other things, “the collapse of world commodity prices at the end of the 1990’s, meaning British farmers simply received less for what they produced”. See for example, the NFU UK Agricultural Review, published March 2003.30 There is no explanation of why the world commodity prices might be so low i.e. the role of supermarkets and big global food processors.
Ben Gill cooking for Tesco
At the Tesco Annual General Meeting, June 13th 2003, British farmers questioned Tesco’s Chief Executive, Sir Terry Leahy, on Tesco’s role in causing and exacerbating the farming crisis in the UK. Like the NFU, Leahy also refused to accept the structural imbalance in power between Tesco (as the largest buyer of UK agriculture) and UK farmers as one of the causes of the farming crisis. His explanation for the cause of the farming crisis sounded uncannily like the NFU. He pointed to low world commodity prices, UK farmers getting a raw deal from EU subsidies and the legacy of ‘Foot and Mouth’ disease. Leahy also said that he had had lunch with Ben Gill the previous week, who had stated that he, and the NFU, valued the support of Tesco and that Tesco is actively supporting British farming through the NFU.
Tesco is indeed supporting the NFU. It has sponsored the NFU’s Food and Farming Roadshow that hit the road in April 2003 and which will visit nearly 150 locations – agricultural and food shows, Tesco supermarkets, farmers’ markets, farm shops and town centres over the summer months.31 The roadshow is aimed at raising public awareness of food and farming, especially amongst children, and also at promoting British food. The supermarket supported Little Red ‘Massey Ferguson’ tractor
Ben Gill launched a massive quarter of a million pound promotional drive for the ‘Little Red Tractor’ logo in March 2003 outside Tesco’s superstore in Kennington, South London. All the major supermarkets support the NFU’s British Farm Assurance scheme, which has the ‘Little Red Tractor’ as its logo. The Little Red Tractor is also sponsored by tractor manufacturers, Massey Ferguson. This Canadian multinational, which is one of the leading suppliers of tractors worldwide, is now owned by AGCO corporation of Duluth, Georgia, USA.
The NFU stands with Sainsbury against Farmers for Action
Evidence of just how ‘close and cuddly’ the relationship is between the NFU and supermarkets was witnessed by Farmers for Action member, Kelvin Lindsley on a protest outside a Sainsbury’s supermarket in 2001, when he discovered Helen Lane from the NFU Press Office on the end of the phone, negotiating on behalf of the supermarket to end the protest.32
Derek Mead, NFU Council Member claims “the NFU will not touch supermarkets” i.e. not criticise them, stating that “Ben Gill is cooking for Sainsbury’s”.33
NFU supermarket members
According to the NFU ‘British Farmer and Grower’ magazine, the organisation now has dedicated account managers for each of the major supermarkets.34 However, this was denied by the NFU Marketing Department which claimed that they appointed individuals within the department as contact points for members enquiries regarding particular supermarkets.35
Sir David Naish and Express Dairies
Ex-NFU presidents have historically taken up a number of corporate directorships. As the NFU has never asked members to declare any potential conflicts of interest this can lead to awkward instances such as the furore over previous NFU president, Sir David Naish, taking over from Chris Haskins as Chair of Express Dairies in April 2002.36
The conflict of interest exists because Express is such a big buyer of milk, processing 22% of milk in the UK. It is no wonder Express Dairies wants such a staunch friend of big business at its helm.37 Farmers for Action (see ‘An alternative voice for farmers?’ section) has been actively targeting Express Dairies for not paying farmers the cost of production for their milk.38
Past presidents of the NFU have previously automatically become life members of the NFU council. However, many council members saw an obvious conflict of interest with Naish’s appointment as Chairman of Express Dairies, and in response voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution to expel him from the union’s governing body. 39 The 2004 NFU Farming Excellence Awards40
Now in their sixth year, the award categories, which pay £1000 to the winner, include:
Best Innovations in the Food Chain Award sponsored by Marks and Spencer.
Farming Ambassador of the Year sponsored by Safeway & Farmers’ Guardian.
Farm Retailer of the Year sponsored by Asda & The Grocer.
Great British Food Award sponsored by Sainsbury’s & BBC Good Food.
Young Farmer of the Year sponsored by Tesco & Farmers’ Weekly.
“The NFU, as the largest farming organisation we have, has to become more proactive or move over and out of the way to let others do so… At the moment its cosy relationship with government undermines the proactive work of others on behalf of the family farmers of the UK.” Michael Hart, farmer and chairman of the Small and Family Farms Alliance41
The NFU’s close relationship with corporations is mirrored by its historically close relationship with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), now re-organised under New Labour as the Department of the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). MAFF had an appalling reputation among farmers and other civil servants of being overly bureaucratic, corrupt and serving the interests of big landowners, especially when it came to dishing out subsidies. It will be interesting to see how the NFU’s relationship with the now re-organised DEFRA pans out in the long term.
“The slaughtermen of the NFU”
Perhaps the most recent and appalling example of the incestuous relationship between MAFF and the NFU was during the ‘Foot and Mouth’ epidemic in 2001, when both strongly opposed a concerted vaccination programme for uninfected animals, and supported the contiguous cull, which saw the slaughter of millions of healthy animals. Interestingly, it highlighted the deep rift within government between No 10 who supported the introduction of vaccination, and the MAFF bureaucrats. As noted by Nick Cohen in the Observer,
“I’ve never found New Labour politicians and advisers as furious or as willing to talk to Leftie hacks……elevated by a less partisan contempt for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and a determination that it should share the fate of millions of beasts. ‘We’ve learned the hard way that the department which gave us BSE is the last organisation you want on your side in a crisis,’ said one.” 42
Close sources indicate that it may well have been Downing St itself that leaked information to The Times newspaper revealing the NFU’s investments, during the Foot and Mouth crisis, because they were so frustrated with the NFU’s anti-vaccination line.
Ben Gill admitted that he was under enormous “pressure” from the government to accept a vaccination programme, though he stuck to his guns.43 Ben Gill did gain support from the influential Food and Drink Federation (See Corporate Watch profile on The Food and Drink Federation 44). Peter Blackburn, who was then Chief Executive of Nestle, and Lady Sylvia Jay, both working on behalf of the Food and Drink Federation, ‘were very afraid of the consequences on all meat and dairy exports’ of a vaccination policy which would lead to a twelve month ban on UK exports. Blackburn was particularly concerned about Nestle’s exports of powdered milk to developing countries.45
Michael Hart, Chair of the Small and Family Farms Alliance speaks of how he and other small farming groups had tried to get past the NFU and MAFF and in to see Blair to argue against mass slaughter. They gave up after ‘hitting the proverbial brick wall’.46 Indeed, many farmers in favour of vaccination felt totally let down by the NFU’s position. Dr Sheila Crispin of Bristol University’s veterinary department, argues that the NFU ‘did not represent those farmers at the heart of the crisis” and how its spokesmen were so ” woefully ignorant” on this issue that “they should not have entered the debate”.47 It is very likely that a majority of NFU members supported vaccination but were not listened to.
Over a year later, in April 2002, Ben Gill was unrepentant. Despite the pain and suffering that was caused both to animals and farmers by the mass slaughter, he still claimed ‘he won a major victory for farmers by changing the government’s mind about vaccination’.48 Most farmers who had their animals culled or who were affected by movement bans would disagree. It is unlikely that Ben Gill was keen to see a public inquiry into Foot and Mouth. Back to top
References 27“Questions raised over NFU shares” by Farmers Weekly Staff. Farmers Weekly Interactive 1st May 2001
28“Farmers were offered up to £10,000 each to take part in the government’s farm-scale trials of genetically modified oilseed rape, it has emerged. Additional payments mean farmers growing GM rape this year stand to receive more than three times the money made by conventional rape growers.” Farmers Weekly, March 24th 2000 Johann Tasker