The gloves come off today in a tough battle for control of Britain’s National Farmers Union. The fight matters to all who care about the politics of food in the UK, and also in the US, as one of the main targets is the Asda supermarket chain, owned by Wal-Mart.
The NFU is currently controlled by a coterie of farmers who routinely leave their posts in the NFU for fat Directorships of huge food companies (see below for details). They do little to represent the needs of the majority of farmers who are being decimated by a combination of supermarket efficiency savings, regulatory red tape and EU corruption.
The move to put up a rival candidate at next February’s election of the NFU President is the brainchild of environmentalist Zac Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist magazine. . It comes the week after he was appointed to advise the Tory Party on green issues. The NFU have it in their power to challenge the big supermarkets but they choose not to.
The giant grid of out of town car parks, huge road deliveries, and the mass-processing of food makes Big Food a major obstacle to off-grid living. Not to mention the erosion of neighborhood shops by retailing giants who seek no involvement in the community beyond a free noticeboard next to Checkout.
The NFU battle will probably last for the rest of the decade, and it may result in the Conservative Party choosing sides and championing food self-sufficiency and the smaller farmers against the purchasing power of retailers like Tesco, and the lobbying skills of manufacturers like Monsanto.
There are hundreds of examples of the nepotistic and near-corrupt relationship between the NFU, the Government regulators and the Big Food corporations. Here are just three:
SIR DAVID NAISH,former Vice President of the NFU, and now chairman of Express Dairies at a time when cuts in the price of milk means Dairy Farmers are being forced out of business by foreign government subsidies, He is also chairman of Arla Foods, which is the food supplying subsiduary of ASDA – in effect it buys all Asda’s food. Arla Foods cut its milk price in September 2005 by 0.35p/litre despite protests from its own subsiduary Arla Foods Milk Partnership, which supplies most of its milk.
BEN GILL, the NFU’s chief spokesman until he left two years ago and immediately took a job at Westbury , another huge milk wholesaler.
Here is what Farmer’s Weekly had to say about the pair of them when Gill announced his departure in October 2003:
Prices have collapsed and the NFU’s preferred tactic of polite discussion and negotiation with its “partners” in the food chain (which is rather like a sprat referring to its partners, the sharks) has resulted in little tangible staunching of the deep and gaping wound in the farming economy.
Sir Ben has, though, probably endeared himself to many other co-members of the Institute Of Grocery Distribution, which is why, as one door closes on the smouldering wreckage of a once-great industry, another will open – to the scent of cigars and fine brandy, in the oak-panelled surroundings of some boardroom or other.
Sir Ben’s predecessor, Sir David Naish, soon had his feet under the table at Express Dairies after he left, and it’s unthinkable that Sir Ben will not be tempted by some similar, non-executive directorship somewhere. End Quote.
But the most sinister figure in the cosy circle of farming bosses, Retailers and Food producers is LUCY NEVILLE-ROLFE, Group corporate affairs director of Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket chain. She reports directly to Tesco CEO Terry Leahy. Neville-Rolfe is a consummate political animal, self-confident and well-connected. She married former MAFF (now DEFRA) permanent secretary Richard Packer, and has an extraordinary network of social connections through Government, the NFU, and the food quangos.
A charming bully, who will use any trick in the book to bring Tesco’s critics into line, she will be in the background, advising the current NFU insiders how to deal with Goldsmith.
With her fingers in a host of commercial and political pies as deputy chair of the British Retail Consortium and a non-executive director at the Foreign Office, she says: I chose the civil service because it does not discriminate, and part of the attraction of Tesco was that it is an entrepreneurial and meritocratic company.
David Handley of Farmers for Action, who is supporting Goldsmith at the launch of the NFU Ginger group, said he refused to accept the argument that competition in the middle ground had forced milk price cuts by Arla and Wiseman, especially as so much of their business was tied up with supermarkets. “How come Dairy Crest has been able to hold its price?
AFMP chairman Jonathan Ovens said, for the first time, a price cut had been arbitrarily imposed after the partnership’s board had refused to accept any form of reduction. “In the past there has always been a willingness on each side to go a bit further than they felt comfortable with. But this time neither side was willing to meet the other.”
Mr Ovens said he was not naive enough to believe Arla’s actions would not affect its relationship with AFMP and had now started lobbying retailers personally to put the case for a price rise. “I am disappointed with the whole industry and confidence is deeply lacking at farm level.”
A statement from Arla said: “Arla is a follower, not a leader, in reducing milk prices and following the downward move by a competitor, it could not be left disadvantaged in what is an extremely competitive market-place. Major challenges in the middle ground market also made the move necessary.”
NFU dairy board chairman Gwyn Jones said he had been expecting the cut, but it was extraordinary that it had been forced on the AFMP. “You have to ask how the board of Arla can operate like this and how its chairman David Naish, an ex-president of the NFU, can be part of something that treats farmers so shabbily.”
Dairy Crest’s milk purchasing director Arthur Reeves said the firm had agreed with its supply group Dairy Crest Direct to maintain prices for October. He said Arla’s position was untenable. “They were the biggest gainers in the supermarket reshuffle and twice they have now led the market down.”
But an Arla spokeswoman said its market share was about the same as the combined volumes of Arla and Express Dairies when they merged in 2003.
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