EU debate must provide clarity for British farming

Yorkshire Post – Saturday 30th May

With the Queen’s speech definitively presenting an in-out referendum on European Union (EU) membership, farmers have reason to be concerned about their future. The industry provides 3.5 million jobs in Britain and is worth £255 billion to the economy: it currently depends on EU support.

The European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) provides critical subsidies for farmers across the union. If Britain were to leave the EU would the UK government be able to take over this significant financial support? Without it, farming in Britain could decline, leaving its food security significantly at risk. UK farmers therefore want the government to think carefully about the impacts of withdrawing from the EU. The National Farmers’ Union has asked for “more clarity on what life inside and outside the EU will mean for British farmers”. It’s a good question.

Whatever might be thought of the CAP – and it does elicit some healthy debates – the support it gives to agriculture and the rural economy more broadly is vital. While farming is definitely not a hot button issue for many politicians, as the recent election campaign illustrated, it’s still important not to push it to one side and think it will take care of itself if Britain leaves the EU.

Proposal to modify plants could give GMO debate new life

New York Times – Thursday 28th May

A group of researchers at the University of Copenhagen claim precision breeding could be useful and see it as crossbreeding with only a twist of genetic engineering. Rather than introducing foreign genes into a genome where they shouldn’t be – say fish genes spliced into a plant, it’s about using genetic engineering techniques to take out or put in genes that are naturally occurring in the plant’s genome. They call this rewilding because in the refinements of modern crop breeding, they say we’ve lost some useful traits in our major crops and precision breeding is a way to put them back. An example they give is that in 2006, scientists working on flood resistance in rice found an ancient variety that had a low yield but could survive extended flooding. Splicing the flood resistance genes into a modern breed produced high-yielding, flood-resistant rice.

But is precision breeding still genetic engineering even if the result is ‘natural’? While the definition of ‘natural’ is called to task in this context, there is much to debate here. The trait being transplanted was once a part of a rice plant: in the United States and Canada that means it can be labelled ‘non-GMO’. But the EU defines genetic engineering by the process – which is hard to argue with – so it doesn’t matter what you’re inserting or deleting, it’s how you do it. By this definition, precision breeding is genetic engineering.

But the question also arises of whether this is as straightforward an issue as is being presented to the media. The techniques of genetic engineering give rise to multiple concerns quite apart from the origin of the genes that are being moved around.

Dr Chuck Benbrook, a professor at Washington State University, says he’s concerned about the ‘precision’ part of this process because there can be unexpected effects on other genes when a new one is added or an existing one is switched off.

Brise Tencer, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in California says that, ‘‘They take a term that sounds really wonderful, but genetic engineering is genetic engineering is genetic engineering.”

Is this always true? It’s a question that demands some considered critical thinking.

What do you know about farming? The Archers and tweed jackets is all there is to it

The Telegraph – Saturday 30th May

It is, perhaps, a testament to our disconnection from food that we understand so little about farming. A recent study on what parents think about farmers and farming showed that perceptions are years out of date. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed admitted that everything they knew came from The Archers and Emmerdale, and that’s really not good…

A number of statistics from the study, some bordering on the ridiculous, illuminated the veritable ignorance of parents in relation to the world of farming. A further quarter of those surveyed thought that farmers wore tweed coats. But more disheartening was how many parents didn’t know that Britain produced apples: with around 1,900 varieties it is an iconic British crop.

Even more disheartening, farming is clearly held in low esteem by this group of parents. A fair chunk of them deemed it to be “inefficient and boring” – read “on its way out”. And indeed this does seem to be the direction it’s moving in, with the average age of farmers approaching the age of retirement. But farming is, in fact, modernising in ways that might surprise you. A surge of younger farmers is taking it up as a profession, many without a family background in it, and they are definitely not wearing tweed. They are reinventing business models, drawing on digital tools, and farming for a sustainable future. They are important pioneers in a changing food system that is demanding we leave our antiquated ideas about farmers and farming well behind us.

Should your employer discourage junk food at work?

The Guardian – Tuesday 26th May

What’s the role of your workplace in your eating? Increasing, might be one response. With work hours lengthening we spend more time in the workplace and, consequently, more time eating at work. Employers are now beginning to realise that they have a lot of influence over what their employees consume, especially in companies where food is a perk of employment. They’ve realised that the health of their employees is connected with the health of their business – a healthy person is necessarily more productive than an unhealthy one.

There may be something insidiously ‘Big Brother’ about your employer’s interest in your health, but we could all do with a bit of motivation to eat better and be fitter. So it’s a balance, which companies don’t always get right. On the darker end of the spectrum some businesses are making gym sessions a part of work and tracking employees’ biometrics, clearly crossing the boundary into their private lives. But others are finding subtler ways to encourage better eating and incentivise exercising.

However, as work becomes more enmeshed with living, there is concern that we are missing a few basic points. Part of a company’s responsibility for keeping its employees healthy lies in allowing for a good work–life balance and helping to cut down stress through manageable workloads. And it’s not just what you eat that creates health and wellbeing, it’s how you eat it. One study points out that only 13% of the workforce manages to take the prescribed hour’s lunch break. Missed lunches cost businesses some £50 million a day in lost productivity – that’s an extraordinary figure. And how well can you digest your food when you’re bolting it down while reading emails and answering the phone? Taking a proper lunch hour is good for you and for your job – it’s simple and yet so easy to forget.

Obesity poised to overtake smoking as key cause of cancer

The Telegraph – Saturday 30th May

Here’s a wake-up call – obesity is about to outstrip smoking as the leading cause of cancer in Britain in the next ten years. It’s now believed that one in five cancers are caused by being overweight; and it’s hitting people about 20 years younger than previously, moving into middle age instead of old age. Excess weight is correlated with its onset at a younger age, so staying slim when you are young has a notable health benefit.

Further, in other related studies, the value of exercise was driven home: 30 minutes of exercise five times a week was found to cut mortality rates in women with breast cancer by half. Similar results were found in men with prostate cancer.

All this tells us that we must take our health in hand and change today’s global culture of overeating and increasing inactivity. Changing trends isn’t easy but, as the issue of smoking has proved, it can be done. The government just needs to develop a strategy, which should include a strong public health campaign that makes clear that overeating is a mortal threat, and heavy regulation of the promotion and advertising of the processed food that is feeding our poor health. Encouraging young people and adults to move around a bit more at school and work is vital as well.

Price issues could permanently change industry structure

Farmers Guardian Insight – Friday 29th May

A falling commodities market is further pressurising British farmers and driving fundamental shifts in the industry. Prices are down significantly across all farming sectors – dairy, livestock and arable – and farmers are struggling to make their bottom line. This is no surprise, as the plight of dairy farmers has been well publicised; it’s just that the same problem is now affecting almost all sectors of the industry. In the face of a deregulated market, it’s our key food producers who are taking the hit.

This is forcing change that is making farming less sustainable instead of more – both economically and ecologically – potentially impinging on Britain’s long-term food security. The survivors of this downturn are those who are able to expand in the crisis, getting bigger and inevitably more industrial. They have the capital reserves to weather this crisis in the hope of higher prices in future. It’s the small- and mid-size farmers that are losing out.

UK farming is in peril on all fronts with the impending EU referendum threatening vital subsidies and the falling prices of the commodities market thinning the field of farmers. We must take a big picture perspective and realise what we stand to lose if the industry is pushed past its breaking point.

Photograph: Graeme Law

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