Steeple Bumpstead
Agricultural Discussion Society

Established 1929

Newsletter May 1999

I have been very lazy of late and the reminders from the Bumpstead News have been put on one side and then forgotten. Itís about time I bucked my ideas up so here are a few notes on what we have been doing over the past few months.

Most of our talks since December have been concerned with Europe. David Kent from Midland bank gave a very informative talk on the single currency and how it will affect all businesses even if the UK does not join. With hindsight we may well ask "What was all the fuss about?", but in December it looked as if the Euro would be a very strong currency. It would therefore make sense to open a Euro account and get paid for our grain in Euroís. It was suggested that we could also benefit from borrowing on such an account because of the lower interest rates in Europe. The one note of caution was that if the Euro got stronger we would end up paying off the debt with devalued Sterling so it could cost us dear in the longer term. The message was clear that we should use the Euro where it was to our advantage but to always be aware of getting caught with the wrong currency when the Euro gained in value. Since January what has happened to the money markets has been the opposite of what was expected so the next question must be "Where do we stand now?"--- I Donít Know !

In March we had another expert speaker on Europe. Robert Gooch has made a career of studying the politics of the European Agricultural policy and then disseminating that information to his clients. It was very valuable to hear how he viewed the reforms that were in progress at the time and his predictions turned out to be quite accurate. The final package (or should I say fudge) was hailed as a great success by all the politicians but since then the whole thing has been messed about with again so I think we should ask the same question again : "Where do we stand now?"--- I Donít Know !

We were expecting Baron Bentink from Moyns Park to speak at our supper meeting in February and we were all very interested in the new management at the park. Unfortunately he could not come at the last minute so we had a substitute speaker; Carl Haynes who spoke about Europe. This time it was about farming in eastern Europe in countries such as Romania. There is a great agricultural potential in these former communist bloc countries because they have vast areas of good land but it seems that they are still suffering from a poor infrastructure and the workforce have yet to come to grips with the free market economy.

Our January speaker did take us away from the European theme with an equally controversial subject ; genetic engineering. David Thompson is a plant breeder at New Farm Crops in Abingdon and he gave us an insight into all the techniques that are used in breeding new varieties of wheat and barley. He started with the early methods of manual cross pollination and the subsequent years of selection and multiplication it takes to produce a new pure variety. He then described techniques that have been developed to speed the natural process. It is possible to get more than two generations a year by using controlled environment rooms. Light and temperature changes can be used to trick the cereal plant to come to harvest in a much shorter time. This is only used for the early stages of the development of a new variety when they are selecting the lines that will be taken on for further development in field trials. As a means of speeding the years of multiplication he described how they got two generations in a year by alternating between the Northern and Southern hemisphere.

These traditional plant breeding processes are "helped along" using high tech chemical processes that create true breeding varieties with uniform genes. This is manipulating the genetic structure but it does not modify or introduce genes so the variety that is produced is still the product of a natural cross pollination. I must admit that the science involved in this went over most peoples heads so I apologise if this description is not 100% factual but I am confident it is fairly close.

The talk ended on Genetically Modified Crops, how they are produced and the implications that their use will have on us as farmers. But this is just the start of a much greater debate and we as farmers will have very little say in itís conclusion. The debate is between large multinational companies, governments and environmental lobbyists, and they all KNOW that their opinion is right. We have to use the tools at our disposal if we are to survive as a business in the long term. There were farmers who said they would not give up horses and use tractors - where are they now? I fear that it will be the same with G.M. crops even though I personally think that Round-up resistant Oilseed Rape etc. has potentially disastrous consequences.

It seems that this season we have got more questions than answers !

Stephen Graves (Secretary)

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