Monday, November 23, 2015

Big mergers in input industries?

A series of major mergers is in prospect in the agricultural input industries. Having seen off repeated approaches from US rival Monsanto, Swiss group Syngenta is now seeking to combine its strength in crop chemicals with other groups' leading positions in agricultural seeds. Other leaders in the business including Monsanto, Dupont's seed business Pioneer and the agricultural units of Dow Chemical, BASF and Bayer.

Syngenta chairman Michael Demaré told the Financial Times, 'On the crop chemical side, we are the strong leader. On the seed side, Monsanto and [Dupont's] Pioneer are the key leaders. The winning company in the future will be the one that can combine these two strengths and have an integrated offer.'

Further concentration among the 'big six' would have implications for competitiveness. It would also enhance the global political influence that these companies are able to exert. There is often an under estimation of how influential the input industries are in supporting agriculture politically.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

'We are not sleeping on the job!'

That was the assertion of Ladislav Miko, Deputy Director General for the Food Chain in DG Sanco, at a symposium at the European Parliament yesterday on feeding Europe with less pesticides. The event was organised by Greenpeace, the International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association, Pesticides Action Network Europe and other organisations.

He insisted that progress in the approval of low risk substances was dependent on progress in the member states. It was also constrained by the legislation and the capacity available to DG Sanco. This capacity was not increasing.

Miko was optimistic in the sense that he felt some difference in practices was observable in the field. However, a report on the implementation of the Sustainable Use Directive that was due in November 2014 will be submitted to the institutions in the first half of 2016. National Action Plans had been delayed.

I am afraid that this reflects the typical glacial pace in the European institutions, the inadequacy of implementation and enforcement and the usual resort to wheeling out shortcomings by the member states, or more specifically the subsidiarity principle, as an excuse.

One might hope for more progress under the Dutch presidency from January. They intend to propose a 'road map' to the Council which would include the acceleration of approval and authorisation procedures and the finalising of low risk substances criteria.

The Netherlands has been operating its own Green Deal since 2014. However, when I heard the lessons learned listed, they were mostly identical with those that we derived from our RELU biopesticides project which was completed seven years ago. So much for impact. If the Dutch weren't interested in a British project, they could have learnt lessons from their own Genoeg project.

Other dispiriting news was that the 'grey area' of plant strengtheners is to be dealt with in a review of fertilisers, which is inappropriate as these products are often marketed on the basis that they enhance plant protection. Their effect on human health is unknown.

It also became apparent that the European Chemicals Agency and the European Food Safety Agency are treading on each other's toes despite pious expressions about better coordination. Sometimes I think that the EU has too many agencies with too many overlapping jurisdictions, but I don't think this is on David Cameron's reform agenda.

Czech MEP Pavel Poc said that member states needed to respect the commitments made. More needed to be done to tackle the illegal trade in pesticides. As far as low risk substances were concerned, every data gap should not be used as an excuse for non-approval.

IBMA executive director David Cary said that we had not yet built the toolbox we needed. There were far too many approvals for emergency use of synthetics under Article 53. Five low risk substances had now been approved, two of which would be available from January.

Summing up, chair Michael Hamell, a former DG Environment official, said 'A new direction for plant protection is here and it's better to step on the train now. We know where we want to go. Are we sure that everything in our regulatory system is in place?'

My answer is a resounding 'No'. The directives and regulations do the job, the problem is the lack of implementation.

My own presentation on 'The Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture' can be found here: Benefits

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Friday, November 06, 2015

Uncertainty about how the world will become worse

One of the speakers summed up an excellent seminar held by EurActiv in London yesterday on 'How Brexit would affect British farming' with the following words: 'Uncertainty about how the world would be worse.'

The discussion was opened by Molly Scott Cato MEP who serves on the European Parliament's Agri Committee. A Green, she represents the south-west and Gibraltar, although, as she pointed out, there isn't much agriculture there.

She said that we tended to take the benefits of the CAP for granted. The countryside would suffer if we didn't have farming working.

A point I very much agreed with is her comment that farming did not have the same resonance in the UK as in other member states as being a vital part of the economy. Farmers would be very vulnerable outside the EU. England could move to a more market oriented view of agriculture, we could move to a New Zealand system with greater intensification and industrialisation.

The view from the NFU

Martin Haworth, deputy director-general of the NFU, indicated five crucial issues:

  • Access to single market, 73 per cent of agricultural exports go there, higher than for the rest of the economy.
  • Would we be more or less open to imports?
  • What kind of EU agricultural policy would we have outside the EU?
  • Labour: farms had 22,000 full-time employees from the EU and the best available estimate of seasonal workers was 21,000.
  • Regulatory issues.

When pressed to give examples of gold plating, Haworth found it difficult to give any, although a representative of the National Sheep Association did point to different treatment of carcasses. The example that Haworth gave of badgers being treated as a protected species is the result of UK legislation reflecting public agitation.

Haworth also said in later discussion that the last CAP reform mixed up economic policy objectives and green policy objectives and ended up pleasing no one.

An environmental perspective

Martin Nesbit of the Institute for European Environmental Policy said that the CAP was not a great advert for European policy-making. What would be a good policy and what would be good for farmers were two different things. The CAP was expensive for what it did and was poorly targeted.

He pointed out that UK vets had been particularly influential on EU discussions and this expertise would be lost.

It was important to consider the link between CAP reform and the wider negotiations. The uncertainty was the most worrying point.

A representative from the WWF commented that Brexit would land both the farming and environment in more trouble. There would be a lower level of funding.

It was argued in discussion that Brexit would change the balance of influence in the remaining European Union. The balance would edge away from the northern liberal states and in favour of the interventionists. One could expect more coupled payments.

EurActiv's own report on the seminar can be found here: Brexit debate

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Biocontrol making big advances

Lucius Tamm gives one of many excellent presentations at the IBMA Biocontrol conference in Basel

I have just returned from the 10th annual biocontrol conference in Basel under the auspices of the International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association. It also marked 20 years of the Association, so there was plenty to celebrate. Real progress has been made, but many challenges lie ahead.

I presented a paper on the progress made by the Association over the last decade. When I was involved in the RELU project on biopesticides, I made a number of criticisms of the lack of sophistication shown by the Association. This offended some people, but my stance was that of a critical friend. Indeed, someone stopped me in the hall and said that I had not been critical enough!

You can find the power points from my presentation here: IBMA Advocacy. This site also contains full information about our RELU project.

There were many excellent and informative papers, but I would like to just select a few points.

It is still taking far long to register new biocontrol products and make them available to farmers. The new legislative framework introduced by the European Union which is designed to facilitate their use as part of an Integrated Pest Management strategy is only slowly and imperfectly coming into effect.

In the past the typical company in the industry has been a small, often family owned company operating on a university science park. Some of these have grown into somewhat bigger but still small companies or have been taken over by medium-sized companies with an environmental portfolio. It can take so long to develop a product and get it registered and cash flow problems occur.

BASF and Bayer have now moved into the industry because they can see its growth potential with acquisitions of companies such as AgraQuest, known for its product Serenade. This has evidently caused some resentment in the industry and although the two companies are clearly on a charm offensive, I am not sure that it worked. It was also unclear to me if they really understood the specific character of the industry or had worked out their strategy in relation to it. I also think it may not generate the quick returns they might expect.

In an incisive presentation, consultant Roma Gwynn pointed out that the industry was still not reaching the vast majority of growers. Biocontrol is, as she pointed out, knowledge intensive. It does require more technical skill on the part of growers and this may not always be easy to find, as our research showed. I also think that the absence of a publicly funded agricultural advisory service is a real loss in countries such as the UK as it could help in the process of knowledge transfer.

Roma also made the point that we were living off research work done in the past. Not enough research was being done in universities and this could adversely affect innovation in the future.

An alternative report of the conference can be found here: Biocontrol

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

NFU report on UK membership of the EU

The National Farmers' Union has published an evaluation of the arguments for and against UK membership of the EU from a farming perspective. At this stage they are not taking a 'better in' or 'better out' position ahead of the outcome of David Cameron's negotiations. However, this is really a holding position so that they can maximise their influence and it is difficult to believe that they would eventually recommend withdrawal.

You can read the report here: NFU Report

Agra Europe has produced an analysis of the NFU report, emphasising that it shows the way in which the CAP has become less common: An internal market?

The 'Brexit' committee I am chairing for the Farmer-Scientist Network of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society has now produced a draft first report which will be considered at a meeting in York next Friday.

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How much money are dairy farmers losing?

Dairy farmers in the UK are to receive an average one off payment of about £2,000 to ease cash flow problems. A dairy farmer in England will receive an average payment of £1,820, but the figures are higher for the devolved regions apart from Wales with farmers in Scotland being paid an average £2,620. However, NFU dairy board member Rob Harrison said that farmers were, on average, £10,000 worse off in July this year than a year ago, so the average payment would not make much difference. However, there are limits to how far taxpayers can be asked to bail out businesses in trouble, even when issues of food security are involved.

Figures of losses at dairy farms often appear dramatic and one might wonder how they continue in business at all. However, they do not take account of non-dairy income and they typically are arrived after deducting a wage for every family member involved in the enterprise.

Figures from The Dairy Group cover about 150 English and Welsh herds with an average 230 cows. Milk prices ranged widely from 19p to 32p a litre with an average price of 24.7p a litre. This range is quite odd when one recalls that one is dealing with an essentially undifferentiated product, but it is a question of who the farmer's processor is. Farmers in more geographically peripheral areas often don't have a choice.

Feed costs have fallen by about 0.8p a litre, and are likely to fall further. Many milk producers will make a loss of 3p a litre this year, but this is before one takes account of non-milk income such as that from calf and cull cow sales. Non-milk income brings in about 3.6p a litre, producing a profit of about 0.8p a litre. There is also a labour charge of £20,000 per family member.

The figures do not take into account rent, tax and capital expenditure. Nor, apparently, do they include subsidies which for many farmers make the difference between a loss and a profit.

There is no doubt that dairy farmers are having a hard time. Just as in steel, a global surplus of product is driving down prices. However, there are considerable variations from farm to farm and calculating the 'profit' figure is by no means easy. Accounts are, after all, a social construction of reality.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Is Defra for the chop?

There are rumours that the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could be disbanded in the latest round of government cuts. It has already been severely weakened in staffing terms.

Food and farming could go to the Department of Business; environment could go to Energy and Climate Change (DECC); rural development could go to Communities and Local Government. Indeed, one could rebadge DECC as the Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Change. It is not clear who would deal with animal health and welfare.

Needless to say this hasn't gone down too well with farmers' representatives, even though some of them formed the view that Defra stood for Department for the Elimination of Farming and Rural Activity. They preferred the old clientist MAFF. But they fear that if Defra went, farming and food would not be properly represented at the Cabinet table.

Objectors say it is not clear who would lead on CAP reform, although the Treasury might like that role.

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

The importance of agricultural advisory services

Historically there was a recognition of the importance of agricultural advisory services as a means of enabling farmers to improve their productivity and adopt new techniques. However, as the state has retreated from agriculture, they have suffered in some countries. The picture across Europe is now highly variable: Project on advisory services

One lesson appears that they need political support to be successful. Innovation is of key importance to farming and, of course, it can be facilitated in a variety of different ways. However, in my view, reductions in state support for applied research have not helped in countries like the UK.

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