North East peers launch attack on Government farming policies

Viscount Ridley leads call for an end to wasteful public subsidy for organic farms

Matt Ridley
Matt Ridley

Two of the North East’s most influential landowners have called on the Government to cease wasting money on backing organic crops and start investing in farmers with skills and research cash.

Farming advisor and Northumberland land owner Lord Curry told ministers it was time the Government finally came up with a plan to ensure young people learn about the countryside and that those working in the industry are helped to exploit new technologies.

At the same time Conservative peer Viscount Ridley has the ministers could save public money by ditching taxpayer support for converting traditional farms to organic farms

Viscount Ridley, owner of the Blagdon and Blyth estates in Northumberland, said “study after study has failed to find a significant benefit from organic foods.”

Between them the two peers are considered to be among the most influential land owners in the country, with years of farming experience between them.

Lord Curry, also Leckford Estate Waitrose farm, used a House of Lords speech to make clear the feeling that the Government is happy for farming to muddle along, rather than investing in the next generation of the food sector. He told peers: “Too often it has been regarded as a mature sector and rather traditional, with newer industries seen as being more sexy and exciting and receiving more attention and support from government, when in fact the evidence suggests that the food sector has a great record of innovation and of responding to changing consumer lifestyles. This important sector needs recognition that it is a priority for investment in skills development and business support and that it has the potential to contribute even more to the economy.”

Lord Curry, a former chairman of NFU Mutual, added: “There is lots of encouraging activity, but there is no glue binding it all together. I find myself involved in a number of important initiatives, but they are taking place in an ad hoc manner without any clear direction, whether it be in providing opportunities for schoolchildren to learn about the countryside, encouraging young people to consider agriculture and the food industry as a career, working with the Farming Help charities or trying to drive forward the science agenda and the extension.”

The final day of debate in the Lords before the summer recess also saw Viscount Ridley call for help in ensuring farms are better equipped to use new technologies and research.

But the author and Times columnist later went on to question another Government spending area, the money handed to pay for conversion to organic farming.

In an attack on the perceived benefits of organic food, Viscount Ridley said: “The health benefits of organic food, if they exist at all, are immeasurably small. The science is therefore becoming very clear that many people who buy organic food because they think it is healthier for them must be wasting their money.”

His comments come just weeks after Newcastle University published research it had contributed suggesting organic food contained much higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants.

But, Viscount Ridley said, the study also found there was very little difference in levels of “minerals, essential amino acids or all the other things we normally think of as nutrients,” adding that the health benefits of the organic antioxidants was as yet unknown.

The Tory peer went on to ask of a Government minister: “Given that organic sales have fallen in recent years and therefore demand is clearly down, and given that rates of conversion to organic farming are also down, would this not be an opportunity to save some public money?”

Baroness Jolly, a Government whip in Lords, said she would look into the issue. She told the Lords: “It can be difficult balancing a family budget, but in providing a varied, balanced diet nobody need feel they have given their family a nutritionally inferior diet by choosing lower-priced, conventional products.”

The Lib Dem added: “There are many reasons why an individual might wish to choose organic products but nutritional benefit should not be one of them.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer