WI update

Helen Browning - 09 June 2011

Win, lose or draw, I said in my last post. Nothing could have quite prepared me for the WI's AGM yesterday in terms of outcome! I certainly wasn't expecting what was effectively a draw.
For the first time in their history, WI members voted to - not vote. The WI still operates as a purely membership led body, which means any resolutions that come before the AGM are proposed by grassroots members - a bit like the old party conferences used to operate before the slightly more stage-managed events of today.

They refused on the basis that the resolution was not specific enough, and that they needed more information. And they were right to pull the plug, rather than force a vote that the audience was clearly unhappy and confused about.

The trouble is, this stuff is complex. With no clear definition of 'factory farming,' or 'mega farms', even well-informed voters don't know what they're supporting. But, crucially, at least there was some open debate. It was hard, due to the format, to find a way to challenge Peter Kendall's major line, the threat of imports if we didn't accept these 'super-sized' farms, and he never got around to addressing the environmental, social and health issues.

All in all, it reinforced my enthusiasm for looking for the right outcomes rather than focussing overly much on the 'inputs', like the herd size. Our new welfare work at the Soil Association is doing just that. If the debate had been about whether systems of farming are acceptable in which pigs tails have to be cut off to stop them mutilating each other, or where antibiotics are routinely used, or where farmers are paid less than the cost of production, maybe we could have come to a conclusion. These are existing issues, not related directly to scale. There are risks that do relate to scale, such as the increased vulnerability of our food supply in the advent of diseases like Foot and Mouth, well raised by a delegate yesterday; and of course the social and aesthetic impacts.

We cannot afford to replicate a too-big-to-fail banking system on food production. The backbone of our rural economy, and true resilience in our food and farming systems, will come from many farms, not a few big businesses. The NFU point that 'if we don't scale up someone else (abroad) will' does not address the fundamental point that we must collectively, as a society, decide what food and farming methods we want to promote, and we must decide how to reward farmers to deliver on that decision. This debate is too important to have in soundbites, and as Peter Kendall rightly acknowledged, the issue of 'mega-farms' is as live and controversial for NFU members as for any other sector of the community. One great outcome of the day was that Peter and I agreed to spend some quality time together soon to talk all this through in a less pressured situation.
So a big thank you to the WI for being brave enough to have the resolution. But I would seriously suggest that we need a lot more constructive discussion and debate before planning permission is granted for a super-sized dairy or pig farm that will change our farming, potentially forever.

Helen Browning is the Soil Association's Chief Executive, and also is an organic farmer - she runs a 1,350 acre organic livestock and arable farm in Wiltshire. Her sausages and bacon can be found in the supermarkets, and her versatile team also run the village pub! Previously Director of External Affairs at the National Trust, Helen is also chair of the Food Ethics Council and was awarded an OBE in 1998 for services to organic farming.

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John Byng
10 June 2011 13:02

Peter Bird-Hammond has got a point that it is dangerous to say that all large farms are bad and that all small farms are good. But it is valid and helpful to say that organic farms are generally (not invariably) better for the environment and better for animal health and welfare. It is also valid and helpful to say that factory farms that allow animals no field time are generally (not invariably) worrying from an animal health and welfare point of view (because denying animals natural behaviour is bound to create stresses) and that they present challanges from an environmental point of view.

Peter Bird-Hammond
09 June 2011 11:29

The outcome of the AGM yesterday was a good outcome for everyone: we need more debate. But I am surprised that Helen admits the debate is complex & cannot be wrapped up in packages about large & intensive because this seems to be the very angle the Soil Association and its colleagues who have been campaigning recently have been taking, conveying what could be seen to be overly simplistic and emotive phrases to gain public support. I welcome that she talks about welfare outcomes, as again none of these groups have mentioned this in their communications to date - just been completely prescriptive about small family run farms must be better on everything. We need to stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Lots of conventional farms can learn from organic and lots of small farms can learn from large, and vice versa. The ONLY thing that is important here is 1) how safe is the environment 2) how happy and healthy are the animals, and 3) how financially sustainable is the business. This should be asked of ALL farms as there are as many poor small farmers as large farmers, and campaigners, including the Soil Association, need to stop trying to villify people who are doing some very good work or making people scared that they will be put out of business without providing any credible evidence. Well done the WI for finally putting a stop to all this kerfuffle and making us all take a longer harder look at what needs to be done here.

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