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UK farming union in bed with multinationals, say pressure group

The National Farmers Union fails its members, is elitist, undemocratic and deeply embedded with multinational businesses, according to a new report by pressure group Corporate Watch.

December 1, 2003
5 min read

The investigation reveals that 65,000 farmers lost their jobs between 1996 and 2002, predicting that by 2005, 25% of small farmers will have also gone out of business. In the wake of this mass exodus from agriculture, the Corporate Watch report reveals a National Farmers Union (NFU) who appears to favour the wishes of the government and the multinational business, over those of their own core members, the farmers themselves.

NFU literature proudly proclaims itself to be, “The Democratic organisation for farmers in England and Wales”. However ground members may not vote for the NFU’s Council Heads, nor do they hold any power to determine who is chosen. As Oliver Watson, a frustrated farmer put it, “89 decrepit, unimaginative, superannuated, self-important male ex-farmers and one woman sit round a table playing the game called “Buggins Turn”.

The rules are as simple as they are stultifying. All office-holders move slowly up the totem pole and – provided they don”t say anything which will upset anyone – they take their turn near the top”. The undemocratic nature of the Union’s ruling Council can be partly explained by the self-selecting elitism of its structure. In order to be on the Council, farmers have to be able to regularly leave their farms to spend days in London.

In the current farming climate, where average annual farming incomes do not exceed £11,000, it inevitably ensures that only the wealthy farmers who employ assistants can ever afford, let alone hope, to sit on the Council. No wonder then, that this same NFU Council continues to allow 80% of farm subsidies to go to just 20% of Britain’s farmers.

According to Corporate Watch the NFU has over £20 million pounds of its members money invested in large companies, including five biotechnology companies and the supermarket giant, Tesco. The launch of the NFU’s Red Tractor Logo scheme was at a South London Tesco store.

When the NFU was asked about this apparent conflict of interest in their investments, their spokesperson, the Director Roger Ward, told Red Pepper: “We don”t entertain Tesco. We meet with the largest buyer of foodstuffs in the food chain. We don”t like this, but this is the reality. Our members supply produce to Tesco and it is our duty to do business with them”.

Upon probing him further on the Union’s link to biotechnology multinationals, he responded by saying that, “I can tell that your article is rubbish”. On the pretext of being transferred to another spokesperson, the reporter was duly cut off.

However, according to Corporate Watch, prominent NFU members have in the past accepted paid trips to the United States as guests of Monsanto. Furthermore, one of the NFU’s Council members, Guy Smith, was until very recently, a high ranking panel member of CropGen, an organisation “whose mission it is to make the case for GMcrops”.

FARM is an alternative farming group, born out of deep distrust of, amongst other things, the NFU’s handling of the Foot and Mouth crisis. In line with Corporate Watch, they are also deeply critical of the NFU. As Zac Goldsmith a co-founder of the group says, “The NFU is a powerful group, it’s dominated farm policy for decades, and has all the political access it needs, and yet it has at the same time presided over the near total collapse of British farming. In short, yes, I think the NFU has let us all down very badly.”

Much of the criticism stems from perceptions that the NFU Council is closely embedded with big businesses and Westminster. Far from taking the grievances of farmers to government, the reverse has been seen to be happening, with many seeing the NFU unapologetically siding with government departments and multinationals. The Foot and Mouth crisis was a case in point. At the time of the outbreak, the NFU regional representative for Cumbria conducted a poll as to whether farmers favoured immunisation, or culling of livestock. The poll showed that 70% of NFU members in the affected region favoured immunisation, and yet the NFU still sided with, and even justified, the government’s mass slaughtering program.

The NFU also used to boast about the precise amount of members that it has. However in the wake of a recent survey which showed that 18% of farmers had let their Union membership lapse, the organisation is perhaps fighting for survival. Having recently built a lavish £20 million HQ in the heart of London’s West end, it immediately declared another move, this time away from London to an office in the Midlands. Such a move arguably reflects a cost-saving measure in an era of unprecedented falling support in the farming community.

A recent farming survey showed that 67% of farmers, and 71% of all young farmers, identified an urgent need to create a new representative farming body to replace the ailing NFU. FARM, whose soaring membership reflects this groundswell of opinion, argue that NFU decision-making emphasises Agribusiness over the livelihood of Agriculture. This is why, according to the words of the NFU’s Roger Ward himself, 17,000 farmers left the industry last year alone.

As the farmer and NFU activist Marie Skinner puts it, “Until the NFU tackles its own internal problems, it will not be able to offer effective leadership to a headless, worried industry and the next generation will continue to walk away from the land”.

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