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Beyond the National Farmers Union

- Saturday March 16, 2002

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David Walker
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The current structure of British farm politics is robust and able for awhile to withstand pressure for change stemming from the evolution of agriculture. (800 Words)

The British National Farmers Union(NFU) has dominated the farm political scene for almost 100 years. Through most of this time it has been able to sustain support from almost all farmers. It has served the industry well.

Its accepted apolitical nature has enabled it to act effectively even when governments have changed. As it is recognized as representing all commodity sectors and political leanings within the industry, it has enjoyed a measure of bargaining power when negotiating with government. Conversely, government has found it advantageous to deal with a single representative of the farming sector.

The NFU undoubtedly reached its height of power following the enactment of the 1947 Agriculture Act which specified that the government should undertake an annual review of the industry with specific consultation with the NFU. This review included recommendations for adjustments to farm support programmes. By being formally involved in the process and then publically accepting and rejecting the annual review, the NFU was able to create the perception that this involved negotiation.

The special relationship that the NFU has had with the British government is, however, of much less value than it was prior to the Britain joining the European Union. Farm support programme decisions are now made at a European wide level within the context of the Common Agricultural Policy.

But as importantly the industry is very different to what it was 50 years ago. Most farms were then "mixed" embracing a number of different commodity enterprises and individual farmer interests were not overly focussed on a single commodity.

Today, most farms have a dominant commodity interest. And the conflicting interests of different commodity sectors are more difficult for a single farm lobby organization to reconcile.

The NFU has a large, some would say too large, structure to accommodate and balance regional and commodity interests. Increasingly, however, it seems unable to do so to the satisfaction of many. But its centralized structure provides it with the ability to resist these pressures.

Those who seek to promote specific commodity interests outside the NFU are faced with a significant challenge in developing an effective lobbying alternative to the NFU. Until they have proved their effectiveness, it will be difficult for them to garner the kind of resources and membership necessary to do the job. It is a chicken and egg situation.

Such organizations as the Meat and Livestock Commission, the Home-Grown Cereals Authority and the Milk Development Council might appear an option to take on this role, as an alternative to developing fresh organizations. They have the resources and the expertise. They are, however, quasi governmental organizations reporting to the Minister of Agriculture - oops... of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

They may undertake policy analysis activities but any outcome of this must be directed to the Minister in confidence, particularly if it is critical of government policy.

The reason for this control relates to funding - their mandatory market levies are deemed to be a tax and, therefore, liable to government control. While farmers pay for the operations of these agencies, it is the government that ultimately controls them.

This in itself is not an unsurmountable challenge. Elsewhere in the world similar legal requirements are circumvented by allowing levy payers to reclaim back levies, thereby, making the levies voluntary. And the experience is that very few do reclaim their levies and farmers govern such agencies very effectively through democratically elected boards of directors.

Whether this is feasible in Britain is almost certainly a political rather than a legal question. The boards of these commodity commissions are largely composed of NFU representatives. This is the result of the practice of the Minister appointing board members from nominations made by the board themselves. This practice provides for the appearance of independence of these boards but tends to perpetuate the status quo.

These boards are unlikely to see advantage in seeking the independence necessary to allow them to lobby effectively. The Minister is also likely to be more comfortable with this arrangement than be faced with truly independent agencies over which there would be little direct control.

There seems to be little political ground between the well established and funded general farm organization, the NFU, and equally well developed commodity organizations which are inhibited in representing their levy paying member farmers' interests in the wider context. If there was, there is little doubt, it would almost certainly have been occupied by farmers with specific commodity interests.

And, while it is convenient for the three partners to the current arrangement to support the status quo, it will be difficult for outsiders to break in.

March 16, 2002

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