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Double bonus for country folk?

Friday 22 January 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard pinches himself to report two items of good news for farmers, growers, horse riders and the equestrian industry but wonders why it has taken so long?

IT IS quite a long time since I was able to start this column with the phrase: It has been a lucky week in the country, good for farmers, market gardeners, horse lovers and the growing equestrian industry. That said, I feel a little churlish in asking “Why has it taken so long?”

That very question comes not just from me but also from Tenants Farmers’ Association chairman Greg Bliss as news leaked out – in a rather roundabout way – that the Government was finally considering the appointment of a supermarket Ombudsman.

Danger averted?

He said, with what I can only imagine was a big sigh: “Whilst we very much welcome the fact that the penny has eventually dropped in Government, this is a decision that should have been made at least a decade ago.

“I shudder to think of the number of good farm businesses we have lost over that 10-year period as a result of unfair competition and the many more farm businesses which although still functioning, have struggled to make a profit and reinvest in their businesses.”

This news came out in The Guardian, which the Government uses regularly as a sort of unofficial mouthpiece. It revealed that Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had accepted the Competition Commission's recommendation to create the new body to monitor supermarket behaviour.”

The paper added, cautiously, that “the scope and powers of the new ombudsman remain unclear, and will be determined as the result of a forthcoming consultation.” The person appointed to the job must first decide how to enforce a new groceries supply code of practice (GSCOP), which will come into force on 4 February.

Now these are too much like the weasel words on this subject which the Government has used many times before, most particularly some years ago when a voluntary code of practice was set up to ensure that food suppliers to the supermarkets were not blackmailed into conceding ever lower prices.

The big retailers reneged on that in a matter of months and as a result thousands of dairy farmers and market gardeners were forced into bankruptcy.

Last year, an investigation by fair trading officials revealed that several of the bigger chains, along with major dairy operators, had conspired together to force down the price of milk. But, according to The Guardian, the plan is still meeting with “strong resistance” from the Big Four of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrison’s.

so for once, party politics have been to the benefit of country folk...

It is significant, I feel, that this new appointment would be made by the Department of Business rather than Defra, which has shown little interest in agriculture until recent months after the growing scare of worldwide food shortages.

Undoubtedly, the real reason for Labour coming out with it in such a round about way is that fact that David Cameron had already promised that the Tories would appoint the Ombudsman immediately should they win the looming general election. So its looks as though we will get one whoever wins – so for once, party politics have been to the benefit of country folk.

The second bit of good news is that Defra vets detected two horses imported from Rumania carrying a deadly equine virus, Equine infectious anaemia (EIA) (See News). This, like blue tongue in cattle and sheep which is already threatening the Yorkshire Dales, can be spread by biting insects and, fortunately, there are few biting insects out and about in our present awful weather.

The two animals involved are to be put down and others on the same premises in Wiltshire are under movement restriction orders – an ominous phrase which was all too common during the foot and mouth debacle almost ten years ago.

The vets who spotted this danger are to be congratulated, because equestrianism is one of the few growth industries in rural areas and, as a father whose young daughter had a pony, I can only imagine the nightmare stress to hundreds of thousands of rural households if such a disease had spread.

But in congratulating Defra in – hopefully – averting such a danger, I cannot resist asking why we allow horses to be imported from places like Rumania, where animal welfare standards are low if they exist at all. It is believed by many – including me – that foot and mouth came to our shores via cheap beef imported from South America. Surely that is a warning we must never forget.

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