Friday, 19 November 2010
Most farmers accept the responsibilities that go along with the rights of land ownership. Many would say that they hold land in trust, not just for themselves and their families, but for their communities and for the nation. We certainly depend on them to preserve our iconic landscapes and to keep the land in good heart for future generations. But there are increasing pressures on each piece of land in our crowded world. How can it provide everything we need: food, timber, clean water, carbon storage, space for leisure, physical and mental well-being? Is it possible to create a framework that would integrate these different demands, within a "Big Society" model? The Relu programme provides some interesting examples of collaborative action. In Loweswater landowners have come together with academics to address the problem of algal bloom in the lake; in Pickering a "competency group" of local people and academics has created innovative computer models of flood risk, and resulted in a new solutions being piloted that could protect the town, without spending large sums of money. But is this kind of success specific to particular places and groups of people or could it be repeated elsewhere? Relu's new briefing paper, based on the programme's response to the recent Governement White Paper on the environment, takes a look at these questions and suggests that a written charter for land use that draws on this kind of research could help to enable integrated management of these vital resources. http://www.relu.ac.uk/news/briefings/BRIF13/NatureofEngland.pdf
Thursday, 4 November 2010
Is nature benign or malign? If I go for a relaxing walk in the country on a sunny day I might assume that is good for my mental and physical health - and I'm probably right, most of the time. But what if I slip and fall into a cowpat that is full of E coli O157? Or I'm bitten by a tick and it infects me with Lyme Disease? Whose fault is it if I become ill? Should someone have warned me to take care, or is it all my own fault for not examining myself for ticks and picking them off with tweezers? Washing the cow excrement off my hands might have prevented me getting E coli but where is the washbasin in the middle of that farmer's field? Relu projects wrestled with these and even more complex problems at a risk workshop in York over the past couple of days. Perhaps I'm glad I live in the town after all. http://www.relu.ac.uk/research/Animal%20and%20Plant%20Disease/Animal%20and%20Plant%20Disease.html
Monday, 1 November 2010
The last time I bought grow bags I asked the retailer for peat-free compost and was told (I suspect out of genuine ignorance) that "they all have peat". Although I know this to be untrue, and should have made the effort to go elsewhere, I contributed to the degradation of our carbon stores by buying some anyway, simply because it was convenient. Life is full of such small guilt-trips and perhaps we need higher prices to make us do the right thing. Maybe the retailer would have been better informed and switched to selling alternatives if peat-based products were more expensive? A levy on peat extraction is certainly one option that could help to conserve this important carbon store. It was just one of four compelling suggestions being made by Relu's Sustainable Uplands project at a seminar for policymakers in Westminster. The uplands provide us not just with an efficient means of storing carbon but with food, clean water supplies, flood protection and wonderful landscapes. Why would we not protect them, except perhaps through ignorance - or putting our immediate convenience first? http://homepages.see.leeds.ac.uk/~lecmsr/sustainableuplands/
Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Can streetwise townie Sue have anything in common with Relu who has come up from the country for the day? Could it even end in engagement? Like many apparently unlikely partners these two UK research council programmes found they had a lot in common. Sue - or the Sustainable Urban Environment programme to give her full name - and Relu - held a joint workshop in London and found many common interests in stakeholder involvement, interdisciplinarity and communication. Both concluded that cracking the disciplinary language barrier is essential and that could apply to the town and country divide too. It is clear that both urban and rural environments must be sustainable, and in an era of climate change they depend upon one another more than ever. The extended poster session for researchers from the two programmes struck some promising sparks - with several vowing to keep in touch and exchange information. Could this be the start of some fruitful liaisons? And if we were to hold another workshop for Relu and Sue should it be in the countryside? That might provide even more inspiration.
Tuesday, 26 October 2010
I was put off swimming pools at the age of 11 by a large and intimidating teacher who insisted we all jump in......with disastrous results. I think I must have swallowed a gallon of chlorinated water and I regret now that as a result of this trauma I never learnt to swim. But at today's workshop on cryptosporidium organised by Relu's Assessment of Knowledge Disease Sources in Animal Disease Control, I was quite relieved that I never feel the least bit tempted to dive in. Apparently faecal contamination from human bodies is a major problem in the recycled water and can infect swimmers with this nasty bug. The chlorene may taste nasty but it is no match for cryptosporosis. As always at such project events I learnt a lot, but they weren't really putting on the event for my benefit. It was an important part of the research process. As researcher Louise Heathwaite explained to the experts gathered from government and industry, 'We want what's in your heads'. The project is looking at how expertise and experience translates into policy - and why we don't get it right all the time. It's fascinating stuff but I'm afraid it has confirmed all my prejudices about swimming pools.
Monday, 18 October 2010
Would I like to have a go at mathematical modelling? It's the kind of question that brings back all the sweaty-palmed anxieties of school algebra tests. And yet, one Relu project has worked with a group of "non-experts" who were enthusiastic about incorporating their local knowledge into computer models of flood risk in their home town. Together, academics and residents have come up with a brand new proposal, now being piloted, that could solve a serious, real-life flooding problem. The team also found that, unsurprisingly, many people have a deep mistrust of computer models, because although they are generally "rightish" for most of people most of the time, they may be completely wrong for the particular place where you live. But although professional expertise may fall down on the particular, this is exactly where local expertise can add a new dimension, improve accuracy and give residents greater confidence in the model's projections. Perhaps this could be Big Society in action? http://www.relu.ac.uk/news/policy%20and%20practice%20notes/22%20Whatmore/RELU%20PP22.pdf
Monday, 11 October 2010
Pondering the CAP tends to have a distinctly soporific effect upon me, but when, as happened recently, I hear Brian Aldridge and Neil Carter debating it on the Archers, I know it really must be important. And it doesn't take much digging into this topic to bring home how much CAP reform could affect us all. It won't just make a difference economically, but it could also have fundamental effects on the ecology and landscapes of the whole of the UK. Obviously I have been mugging up from Relu's latest briefing paper, http://www.relu.ac.uk/news/briefings/BRIF%2012%20CAP/12674%20RELU%20CAP%20Briefing%20Paper.pdf written for us by Alan Woods. As always, Alan has the policy issues at his fingertips and deftly draws in evidence from across the programme. These findings advocate reformed agri-environment schemes that promote an ecosystem services framework - which means getting more for your money from every acre, not just in terms of food but also other vital goods such as clean water, carbon storage and wildlife. There isn't going to be any more land available, so we have to get the best we can from what's already there. I can't say that CAP reform is going to be my favourite reading from now on (except possibly as an alternative to counting sheep) but I can't deny its importance, and I will be as interested as anybody in the outcome of the reform process.
Friday, 8 October 2010
When Ixodes ticks are ready to feed, they go out 'questing' for a bite from a passing animal or unclad human leg. But, if they are carrying Borrelia burgdorferi, that human could contract Lyme Disease - an illness that, left untreated, can be more serious than just an itchy bite mark. So whose fault is that? You can't really blame the tick - it's what ticks do. And who infected them in the first place? At Relu's "Assessing and Communicating Animal Disease Risks for Countryside Users" practitioner panel yesterday, one land manager was anxious because "My deer always get the blame". I can understand his sense of injustice, as deer don't actually carry Lyme Disease - although high concentrations of deer do seem to be associated with lots of ticks, simply because they provide regular meals for them. But the ticks are picking up Borrelia burgdorferi from small mammals and birds. So are they the baddies? Of course, if people using the countryside are well-informed it may not matter. They can cover up, avoid long grass, particularly at relevant times of year, and inspect themselves and pets for any ticks when they get home. If the little pests are removed quickly, using tweezers, they will cause no problem. But whose responsibility is it to tell us about the risks? That's not so easy to answer.
Wednesday, 6 October 2010
Three Relu researchers presented results at last night's Animal and Plant Disease Forum, which brings practitioners and members of the policy community together with academics. If there is consensus on animal disease, it seems to be that information will always be incomplete. In situations of exotic disease outbreaks, it is difficult if not impossible to predict the course of events, and yet action of some sort must be taken. And of course, detailed plans are in place for emergencies such as another outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease, or Avian flu. They map out a response, specific down to timings of media releases. But the uncertainty of animal disease means that the response is unlikely to follow such a prescribed plan. So is there any point in having a plan at all? Is it really there to give those who have to cope some sense of being in control as all around them descends into chaos? Does it give them some firm ground from which to step out into the unknown? If so, the plan has a very useful function. And if action achieves the required outcome, knowledge will follow. http://www.relu.ac.uk/research/Animal%20and%Plant%20Disease/Animal%20and%20Disease.html
Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Why aren't farmers diversifying into on-farm energy production? It's a bit of a mystery if we believe the figures that researchers on Relu's Energy Production on Farms Through Anaerobic Digestion project have come up with. At their end of project conference there was some scepticism among industry insiders. And yet, it does seem as though both farmers and the UK Government might be missing a trick. If they do take the energy production route, they should bear in mind another finding from the team. Unlike farmers in Germany and Austria, they would be better off not relying on maize to feed their digesters. Maize is marginal for much of the UK and doesn't encourage wildlife. Residues from crops they already grow could be a much better option, and could provide a triple win for food production, biodiversity and energy. Perhaps farmers just need a bit more information about the possibilities and some more encouragement from policymakers. Look out for more results from this project http://www.ad4rd.soton.ac.uk/
Tuesday, 21 September 2010
Sometimes simple solutions really are the best. While many great minds are exercised about how the UK is going to meet the requirements of the European Water Framework Directive, a group of Relu researchers has been concentrating on the practicalities of reducing faecal contamination in our rivers. According to their computer model, building better fences that prevent livestock from fouling watercourses would be the single most effective strategy. It would work better than more complicated approaches, aimed at reducing stocking densities - which is good news for farmers. And for Relu this represents a great piece of cross-programme research, involving people from several projects. So it's good news all round. Read all about it in the press release http://www.relu.ac.uk/news/Press%20Releases/fences%20clean%20up%20watercourses%20final.doc and the research is published in Water Research http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2010.07.062 .
Saturday, 18 September 2010
The future for livestock farmers could be pretty bleak if we believe everything we read in the press. Is meat really going to give you cancer? Is producing beef wrecking the rainforests and the planet? Are farting cows really a major contributor to climate change? Will millions starve if we don't all become vegetarians? A seminar on Friday, organised by the Food Research Partnership brought together policymakers, academics and representatives from the industry to ruminate on the problems and brainstorm new approaches. They were asked to think about the contribution that the livestock sector makes to the environment and society so climate change wasn't far from anyone's mind. As meat eating becomes more and more a feature of life in the developing world can what we do in the UK even make a difference? But, in this session, prompted by the Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington and chaired by Chris Gaskell, Principal of the Royal Agricultural College, the discussion was surprisingly upbeat. Maggie Gill from the Scottish Government encapsulated the messages from the day when she urged producers to move from their defensive position and communicate the positive messages about meat eating to balance out what the public is hearing. Meat can be beneficial for the human diet, grazing is important for maintaining iconic landscapes and animals can transform grass and other fibre that is inedible by humans into valuable protein with great efficiency. By the end of Friday afternoon the groups were in full voice when they fed back to the chair: couldn't we rethink the ban on feeding food waste to pigs instead of sending it to landfill, breed cows that would give more lactations, maybe without having to give birth, and animals that would create less methane. What other technical fixes might be developed to eliminate the methane problem? And why just cows, sheep and pigs? What about all those other animals we could use for food? By this point the delegates were buzzing. Perhaps even ostriches might take off.
A report from the day will be produced for the Chief Scientific Adviser.
A report from the day will be produced for the Chief Scientific Adviser.
Monday, 9 August 2010
It's probably a sign of what a dull life I lead but the latest excitement at Relu publications is 6 page gatefold new policy and practice note in the series of four page green notes. It's not a printer's error but a special publication aimed at local government. A fruitful collaboration with some representatives from local authorities has resulted in what we hope is going to be an occasional series - but we shall have to see how it is received. This first blue note is, appropriately enough, on the topic of water management.
Friday, 23 July 2010
I don't often get much time for a personal life, instead working late into the evening on vital tasks for Relu (at least that's what I tell our Director) but last night Peter Mandelson was promoting his new book "The Third Man" at the Civic Centre in Newcastle. What spin doctor could resist the opportunity of seeing the master in action? He was being interviewed by Times columnist Phil Collins and it was a smooth double act. That's not surprising, given that this was the final date of a sustantial book tour. I wondered whether the questions and responses were exactly the same at each appearance or whether they agreed just beforehand that they would play the 4 3 2 1 - or the 8 5 9 0 - (as you can see, I know nothing about football). Either way, I didn't feel we learned anything new about the New Labour project. Perhaps it has all been told, but I had hoped we might find out more about what makes Peter Mandelson tick. He cast himself very much in the role of kingmaker and it will be interesting to see whether Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will produce accounts that substantiate this. But, whatever the degree of truth in the telling, I would like to have known whether he was content with the role. Has he never hankered to be an acknowledged leader, rather than a power behind the throne? Mandelson fulfilling the ambition of his initials is an unlikely picture for most of us, but how does he feel about that public and media reaction? He wasn't telling. It was a polished performance but he we didn't see below the veneer. I suspect the book is equally circumspect so I think I will wait for the paperback edition before I buy it.
Thursday, 1 July 2010
Feedback from stakeholders attending the launch has been very helpful. They conveyed with great clarity their desire for short, sharp messages in plain English. They want some communications that draw on the common themes across the set of projects and perhaps a Relu briefing paper, akin to the ones we have produced on land use and the Water Framework Directive, would go some way to meet that need. Involving stakeholders at the very beginning of research is a popular move - and this event is a good example of how we try to achieve that. It seems to have been a useful and an enjoyable experience for people taking part, including those of us working in the Director's Office. The small touches we tried out for the first time - our 'sign-up' books and the prize draw certainly went down a storm. Two lucky winners went away with some highly desirable books and we departed with a sheaf of contact details from people keen to commit to a longer-term relationship with projects and with the Relu programme. Having fun at work - you can't really knock that.
LWEC Head of Directorate Ken O'Callaghan has provided a major highlight of the day with some Relu-style colour-coordinated socks. This is clear evidence of LWEC's commitment to a close relationship with the Relu programme. Ken wants to take the messages from Relu on board - and not just in his sock choices. It could be a very fruitful engagement for both LWEC and Relu.
Our relu dating sessions are in full swing. People are so keen to grill the researchers that we have had to send our director in to prise them out and send them on for their next "date". One project leader has told me that they have already changed their methodology as a result of discussions with stakeholders this morning. It's all very dynamic and we still have our prize draw at the end of the day.
Hooking stakeholders is what we are about and when they have filled in their sign-up forms we really will know where they live. But it isn't as threatening as it sounds and they might even find they enjoy it and want to come back for more. The message from Kathryn Monk is that stakeholders need short sharp messages. Most are short of time and resources, particularly in the current economic climate, and it's always good to be reminded of that. Research-speak is all very well but it isn't a good communication tool for non-academics. Claire Waterton's presentation was a timely real-life example of research in action. Loweswater has experienced recurring problems with algal bloom and the accepted orthodoxy was that farmers are too blame because of their fertiliser use. A more inclusive approach, which involved a group of researchers and residents under the banner of the Loweswater Care Project, has looked at the problem in a different way and found that, like most things in life, it's actually much more complicated than that. Claire asks whether institutions are equipped for this kind of bottom-up thinking. In most cases probably not, but politically it seems timely, and perhaps the kinds of projects that stakeholders are "dating" today can help.
As we launch the final round of Relu projects the spotlight is, more than ever, on our stakeholders and the part they play in getting research out into the real world. It's encouraging that so many key people have made the effort to come to Manchester for today's event. And I'm particularly looking forward to hearing Kathryn Monk from the Welsh Assembly Government talking about her experience of being a Relu visiting fellow. I'm sure we haven't done everything perfectly, but I think we have got better at this kind of involvement as Relu has moved forward and I hope that we can feed our experience into the wider remit of the Living With Environmental Change programme.
Tuesday, 29 June 2010
It's certainly true for many non-human species, when faced with environmental change. Let's hope it won't come to that for us humans. But whatever happens, we are going to have to make changes to the way we live and how we use our land. That's the topic for the new round of Relu research, launched in Manchester on Thursday. Building networks is a key aim for these projects so the launch will be a platform for engaging even more stakeholders in the research. I hope we shall see you there.
Friday, 14 May 2010
I couldn't claim that this two-day seminar has come up with any magic solutions to the TB crisis but at least I have a clearer understanding of the problem, and I think that may be true even for the experts. Solutions are always harder, but maybe we have had a glimpse of some tools that could help us out of this crisis. For farmers who are suffering the effects that may not seem very encouraging. but if I have learnt anything over these two days it is that this isn't a simple problem and there seems no point in expecting simple answers. We are going to need a strategy that uses all the tools on offer.
Thursday, 13 May 2010
Glyn Hewinson from VLA has the dubious honour of being known as "The Ten Year Man" among farmers, or so he tells us, because any vaccine is always ten years away. Or maybe not. As he explained, there is now a vaccine that could be used on cattle - except it would be illegal and would wreck our meat trade. There would be no way of distinguishing the skin reaction of vaccinated cows and those carrying bTB. So until the researchers find a way around this, we can only keep it in reserve. Badgers may be luckier: there is now a vaccine that could protect them. Unfortunately they are reluctant to line up in the vet's waiting room for their jabs (perhaps like me they hate needles) so trapping will be necessary to make sure they get their annual dose. It will be interesting to see the result of the trial. Glyn emphasises that vaccines won't be a magic bullet, and it could take several years to see positive effects, but they are essential tools if we are ever to get ahead of this pernicious disease.
Robin Skuce and his colleagues at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Northern Ireland matched today's sunshine with some optimism. They are looking at the genetics of cows and of the TB pathogen. For me this shed new light on a problem that so often seems beyond addressing, never mind solving. Of course, when one thinks about it, most pathogens do come up against individuals who have immunity. Human beings are not all equally susceptible to TB (and I was stunned to learn that 40% of the world's population is infected, although in most it is latent). Why shouldn't it be possible to select cattle for resistance to this bacterium? Robin thinks that this is quite feasible and with the necessary will and resources, could come about relatively quickly. His research also involves looking at the genetics of TB itself and he showed how its family tree has now been recorded in detail. Know you enemy, he urges. And tracking particular strains of bTB could show how the infection is being passed on. So maybe we have some new tools to use.
Christl Donnelly from Imperial College and her fellow members of the Krebs committee are used to being viewed as either heroes or villains - often by the same interest groups at different times. Her account of the trial cull of badgers was a fascinating one, giving some insights into the behaviour of the animals. That there is a relationship between TB in cattle and TB in badgers seems undeniable, but who gave it to whom is much more complicated. Results from the cull, as we know, showed that although incidence of bTB declined within the culling area, the risk actually rose in the 2 km zone outside it, presumably as infected animals were disturbed and moved beyond their usual range. So what's the answer: no culls or bigger culls? Maybe it has to lie in the economics. But that is unlikely to satisfy either side in the debate.
Why is bovine TB a policy issue at all? The round table discussion certainly got back to basics with this question. Is this disease still a threat to human health? If it is it shouldn't be coming from milk - if we can trust pasteurisation. But can we? And is it significant that TB testing subsidises some rural veterinary practices? Lots of questions. Lots of science. Not many answers at the moment.
Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Gareth Enticott from the University of Cardiff looked at the realities of living with disease, quoting tellingly from Albert Camus' novel "The Plague". His stories and analysis gave an insight not only into the stresses upon farmers, but the dilemmas facing vets in their day to day practice. Their role in bTB testing means they are having to act as regulators to their own clients. At times this must make for an uneasy relationship. So what do we expect from vets and from veterinary expertise? And are our expectations reasonable?
Bad Badger and Good Badger made another appearance in Angela Cassidy's fascinating analysis of media coverage of this hot topic. Most of the broadsheet media coverage she has looked at favours culling, yet, we are told that "The Public will not tolerate culling" and science correspondents seem particularly reluctant to enter the fray. It was intriguing to hear how far back we can trace the Good/Bad Badger debate, which first makes an appearance in the 10th century. It was regarded as an agricultural pest, and at the same time a brave, and somehow typically British character, who cared for his family and was an important part of our natural heritage. Generous bounties on his head from Tudor times until World War I attracted few takers. Like Robin Hood, he seems to have lived outside society, attracting sneaking admiration. Is this still the case? Do we simply not know what "The Public" really thinks? Or, perhaps, our attitudes are as complicated as they were in the 10th Century.
Katy Wilkinson has made a detailed study of Defra's policy on animal disease, having recently completed her PhD on the subject. She challenges the assumption that evidence-based policy making is the only game in town. In a situation such as we have with bTB, more evidence doesn't seem to help, as it is constantly contested and opposing opinions simply become more polarised. It is in politicians' interests to distance themselves from unpopular decisions, by basing them on "science" and reframing the question as technical one. But, Katy, argued, evidence can only inform decision making, it cannot replace making a decision, as she steered us skillfully through the complicated history of bTB policy.
We have had a lot of "boo words and hurrah words" over the past few weeks and they don't just turn up in politics. Wyn Grant kicked off today's seminar with a fascinating look at the historical development of bovine TB policy and the role of emotion, blame, the creation of villains, and notions of justice. Badgers feature prominently in this picture and there is high emotion on both sides of that debate. Farmers are losing their livelihoods and, perhaps even more difficult, is the situation of those who live in constant fear of doing so. But what of Mr Badger? Is he villain or victim? In the policy archives it isn't even that simple. The badger per se might be a welcome rural resident, but "The Rogue Badger" is a figure who pops up from an early stage, well before the days of ASBOs, though I think he would qualify for one. He is old and senile but dashed cunning. He can't be trapped. So this debate has quite a history, whether you are booing or hurrahing.
Tuesday, 4 May 2010
It's supposed to be spring. Even in Newcastle there have been a few glimmers of sunshine and I have decided it might be safe to leave the office. Next week I shall be travelling down to the University of Warwick which is practically tropical in Geordie terms. Relu researchers who are investigating aspects of animal disease are hosting what promises to be a fascinating two-day seminar on bovine TB: "People, Politics and Culture" on Wednesday 12 May and "Hosts, Pathogens and Environments" on Thursday 13th. So I am dusting down the Roaming Relu blog to keep you updated on this fascinating - and controversial - topic. Watch this space.
Thursday, 25 February 2010
Today the NFU communications team very kindly invited me along to find out more about what they do, and attend their team "wash up" meeting, to review the conference. It was fascinating to hear the inside story on such a successful event, and the tremendous amount of work and planning that went into it. I have come away with plenty of ideas about how we can feed into their organisation, and NFU publications that we can pitch ideas to. I also noted that they have really nice chocolates at their post-conference team meetings, another idea we could usefully copy. Tomorrow I travel back northwards to Newcastle.
Wednesday, 24 February 2010
It was gratifying to hear speakers and delegates comment several times over the course of the two day conference on the need for more research if the agricultural industry is to be sustainable and feed the world in an era of climate change. Sometimes we assume that farmers think all scientists exist in an ivory tower but the delegates at the NFU seemed very ready to support research. At this afternoon's political 'Question Time' one urged the funding of more teams to work on problems relevant to agriculture. He pointed out that successful research teams often have to waste time working on applications for grants, or disband to do other work - a situation academics are all too familiar with. So farmers are ready listen and to get results it into practice, as long as we can talk to them in language that is accessible and provide information that is useful to them.
Speakers from the EU, the Scottish Agricultural Colleage and Defra argued that it is in farmers' interests to put animal welfare high on their agenda. Not only is it a concern for consumers, it can lead to better animal health and productivity and tastier meat from unstressed animals. This is a welcome message. As one delegate pointed out, a recent survey found that a large proportion of young people think bacon comes from sheep. People do need to know more about where there food comes from and more information about how it is produced. Farmers have a lot to be proud of, particularly as our welfare standards are probably the best in Europe. They should be telling that good news story.
Robin Tucker of Natural England must have known he would have a hard time at the NFU conference breakfast session on the uplands. I had a lot of sympathy for him. 7.30 am is too early for a fight. It was clear that members regard Natural England with suspicion and some resentment. Seeing them in charge of decisions about financial support for upland farmers makes them anxious. One accused them of acting like the SS and wanting to drive farmers from the hills so they could rewild large areas, which Tucker denied. What came over very loudly, is that farmers in the uplands want to produce food and hate the jargon of government organisations. Talk of 'ecosystem services' turns them off. That could be a lesson for us all.
Tuesday, 23 February 2010
The average farmer may be old enough to have grown up with the Beatles but Paul McCartney will find few fans among livestock producers. At their workshop today all were aghast at the suggestion of 'Meat-Free Mondays' although most reluctantly admitted that they would need to take the climate change message on board, if only because of government or consumer pressure. NFU Livestock Chairman Alistair Mackintosh played heavily on grassland as a carbon store but agreed that a concerted pr campaign might be necessary to counteract the influence of veggie celebs such as Sir Paul and to explain the complexities of greenhouse gas emissions to a public looking for quick-fire solutions.
After the politicians came the real business - commodities. Paul Kelly, who developed the Kelly Bronze turkey was the most interesting speaker for me. As a marketer of his product he is a genuis, and bursting with enthusiasm. I loved the moment when he told us he had ignored pr advice that livestock producers should never show pictures of the animals - consumers can't take the idea of eating them apparently. Kelly didn't agree and his publicity is full of happy turkeys. I would like to have told him that I (a non-farmer and self-confessed townie) wrote a viewpoint article for Farmers' Weekly urging farmers to be more up-front about meat production and show us their animals. If meat eating, and livestock production, is to survive, we have to be more honest about it. I am interested in food and cooking and I am a committed carnivore. But I do want to know where my dinner comes from, and how it lived. Paul Kelly says that he wants consumers to be able to come to the farm where his turkeys are raised at any time and have all their perceptions about the brand confirmed. That is of course the secret - you have to be confident that your standards meet customer expect
ations. I applaud his confidence.
Peter Kendall was upbeat on the future of farming when he opened the conference this morning. Food production has risen up the political and public agenda and put farming under a brighter spotlight than it has enjoyed for years and the NFU seems to be revelling in it. Kendall is an impressive speaker and he made some intersting points about the need for the industry to invest in its own future and the opportunities for on-farm energy production - he feels that the government has missed a trick in not putting enough incentive farmers' way on anaerobic digestion. Both he and the subsequent speaker - Secretary of State Hilary Benn - mentioned the need for investment in science but only the latter was barracked. Or perhaps badgered is the right word. No news there, but the black and white issue did overshadow Benn's comments on the importance of food production in an era of climate change and his measured comments on cost sharing for animal disease. Nick Herbert, his Shadow, on the other hand, was wooing his natural constituency and promising to 'put the farming back into Defra'. He popped off a few shots at bureaucracy and red tape and the Rural Payments Agency which went down well. He supported cost sharing but on the basis of giving farmers a bigger say and controlling badgers in high TB areas. He is the darling of the conference - for this year at any rate.
Monday, 22 February 2010
My bags are packed and I am setting off on the train to Birmingham today. NFU insiders tell me that I won't need to wear tweeds or a Barbour jacket in order to blend in, but when deciding on a suitable bag for hauling my laptop around the conference venue I have to admit that I did choose my "Riverford Farm" hessian carrier rather carefully. Several members of the NFU communications team have been touch and I'm looking forward to meeting them. They have an exciting timetable of activities lined up for me. As well as attending some of the sessions as a delegate I will be helping to register members of the press, spending time on their campaigns stand and writing short pieces for the NFU website. It sounds as though it could be a busy couple of days.
Tuesday, 16 February 2010
Next week I will be work shadowing in the NFU Communications Department. I am looking forward to spending a couple of days at the NFU conference in Birmingham, then visiting their headquarters at Stoneleigh. I want to find out more about what they do, the ways in which they communicate with their members and what we could be doing better at Relu. Over the course of the week I will be posting some blogs so hope you will join me then.