At the ACF Conference on Agriculture and Climate change held in 2008, one of the working groups was on relations between government and farmers. This has led to ongoing work and production of the “Unsafe Distance” report.
The aim of the Conference was to explore appropriate Christian principles to guide further work towards restored partnerships in the UK and beyond.
The Chairman of ACF, Graham Hinds welcomed delegates. He said that the purpose of the meeting was not for farming to take the moral high ground about the failed relationship with officialdom but to work out how the gulf might be bridged.
In summarising his report Christopher Jones reminded us that the gospel is about relationships. He said that we tend to think that the UK experience is all down to Defra but actually it’s a problem which spreads through the whole political establishment in the UK. However, it is possible to see the beginnings of signs of change which may create opportunities for a new way of doing things – so it is a good time for action.
Dr Christianne Glossop, Chief Veterinary Officer for Wales.
Christianne’s experience is particularly apt as she has worked at both sides of the farm/officialdom divide.
She began by stressing the importance of relationships and of the people who had mentored and supported her early in her career.
Her first encounter with government was whilst running a commercial pig AI business which was closed down overnight when the notifiable disease, Blue Eared Pig Syndrome, was diagnosed among the boar stud. It caused a problem also for the farmers who used the semen. Government were not clear about what circumstances were necessary to allow the business to restart – she had to sit down with the Chief Vet of the time and produced a plan.
At the time of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak she was working as an independent veterinary consultant. The outbreak meant that all her work disappeared overnight and her income with it. She also felt strongly that she should contribute what she could to help fight FMD. So she went to work for the State Veterinary Service as a Temporary Veterinary Inspector. Initially it was very challenging – most of the vets had not seen Foot and Mouth Disease before and were sent out to cope in extreme circumstances for all concerned especially the farmers who were affected. Everyone was worried and frightened.
Christianne told the story of coping with the slaughter of a herd of outdoor pigs which did not have the disease but were contiguous to a farm, which did and so had to be slaughtered. There was a big media presence, a slaughter crew ready to do the job and farm staff breaking their hearts and erroneously expecting that she had come to save them. The plan was to get farm workers to help to value the pigs and then to slaughter them but she decided to oversee it being done without the farm workers. The farm manager and the owner were both well connected – so there were lots of pressures from outside. The difficult thing was maintaining composure under such horrendous circumstances. The approach she took was to treat it as a ‘normal’ farm visit, being as informal as possible and talking about the animals and their management etc. It might have been easier to bear if F&M lesions were found but none were – that might have made it easier for the farm staff to bear – they felt it was all unnecessary. It was a real blessing to go to the farm six months later and inspect cleaning and disinfection – the same workers were there but feeling positive and looking forwards as plans were in place to re-stock the unit.
The lesson from this is that each person in the scenario is a human being doing a job and, whatever it is it needs to be done. They all need to be treated with respect and they all need support.
Christianne decided to join the State Veterinary Service permanently to get an opportunity to try and improve relationships and the way things were done. She “walked into bovine tuberculosis (bTB). It’s a slow motion version of foot and mouth disease – slow and excruciating”. She spent time testing cattle and visiting breakdown farms. On one occasion she visited a farm when infected cattle were loaded to be transported for slaughter and helped – it was traumatic. It showed her what bTB did to farmers and how frustrating the regulations and the processes can be for everyone involved but farmers especially. At that time Government had no vision or objective to eradicate TB.
Becoming Chief Veterinary Officer in Wales has allowed her to meet the bTB problem face to face, develop Welsh policies change and improve things.
In 1935 2,500 people died of bTB in Britain. Christianne feels that we have protected human health but have lacked a clear policy for tackling the disease in cattle, which has a defined end point. It has all seemed contradictory, which annoys farmers and vets. So clear objectives are needed – the long-term eradication of bTB with milestones along the way and then everyone involved needs to be taken along. This is difficult because relations between government and farmers can be strained and there can be a lot of misunderstanding and suspicion. Again, we need to understand it’s about people. Some measures will be unpopular and painful. “We haven’t got it all right yet but we are working on it”, she says.
Government relations with farmers are mainly with representative organisations but how representative are they of ordinary farmers? Christianne has tried to visit farms quietly to see what is really happening out there, because the usual CVO farm visit tends to result in publicity. But “you cannot visit every farm in Wales” so how do you get a real two way discussion going?
All cattle herds in Wales now get an TB annual test – this is an important component of the TB eradication strategy but also pushes vets into the role of ambassadors – working towards getting a common message across.
There are three Regional Eradication Boards in Wales – another way of improving communications between local farmers, vets, local authorities and Christianne’s team
Restrictions on stock movements for disease control purposes (TB or otherwise) create a lot of hurt. Balancing risk against the importance of movement is difficult – most farmers support the restrictions though. “Most farmers will take it on the chin if you explain.” Honesty and co-operation strengthens relationships – but it has to be two way. A library of “business critical” movement licences is being developed for Scotland, England and Wales in the event of an outbreak of FMD, to make it easier to facilitate essential movements of stock more systematically.
“Underneath it all the unit of action is the human.” “Most people are trying to do the best they can.”
CG needs our prayers to where God has called her.
Question – What do you say to a Christian who says culling badgers is against God’s will?
CG – God has given us a suite of solutions to consider and to negotiate.
Question – Why isn’t the government presenting the facts about the impact of bTB on badgers?
CG – We need to publicise the full impact of bTB more stressing the impact on people, cattle, wildlife and even pets.
Question – How do you manage powerful stakeholder groups?
CG – it’s a big problem getting the word out – working with the media can be frustrating but it is important
Hard Work after lunch!
After lunch John Martin led discussion about the basics of relationships. In the first part he took the story of Ruth, together with Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son,(reference ) as an example. He divided the conference into groups to examine the stories, then invited the groups to feed into general discussion. Some of the questions and highlights follow. It is hard to recapture in print the liveliness and humour of the session, but it was not typical of after lunch discussion:- the lift and vigour from the morning was still in evidence!
What follows is a medley of ideas, questions and reflections.
Both stories are about going away – in Naomi’s case emigrating. Naomi and her husband went to Moab as economic migrants to escape famine. The Prodigal Son left home to escape the constraints of responsibility and to spend and indulge himself until poverty and hunger drove him back – another kind of economic “migrant”. Naomi tried to “integrate” and settle but everything came to nought, apart that is from the quality of her daughters in law. Ruth emigrated for love and loyalty and then really settled. Is moving near and far good or bad?
Naomi seems to have attracted strong love and devotion from her daughters-in-law. No mother-in-law problem for them. She and Ruth seem to have a model relationship, trust in each other – also trust in God. The Prodigal Son did not doubt that he would be received back as Naomi and her foreign daughter-in-law had been, but his brother was not so sure! This raised the challenge as to how often those of who are already at home in the church create obstacles for those who would come back into relationship with the Father.
Ruth, the foreign widow became the ancestor of David – the model being and leader. Strong relationships can have surprising results!
In the second session we looked at the role of Christians in public service. Good work principles and good relationships require listening and humility. Face to face meetings do more to build relationships, until there may even be enjoyment – celebrating alongside.
An official is a public servant. Where power differences are large, trust is difficult. Active non-judgemental listening, sympathy, support and a readiness on all sides to apologise when things go wrong are needed. A vision is necessary, but a vision that changes when circumstances change. The right inspiration can leave people feeling good about themselves.
Final Session (Christianne Glossop, Dan Taylor, Peter Carruthers, Christopher Jones and John Martin respond to questions).
There is scope to improve relationships for farm inspections, e.g. It sometimes seems as though Natural England is the “good cop” and the Environment Agency the “bad cop” but the EA have changed enormously in the way they work more recently and have recognised that advice works best.
It might be cheaper to get people on farms to advise and support than to use them to regulate – but we would need to be able to demonstrate that this was the case. In some instances in Africa identifying people with good knowledge and educating them further to become informants and agents of change has worked well.
Christopher Jones – Jim Paice has said he wants to “reculturate” the RPA into an “assisting body” but says that we cannot go back to NAAS/ADAS. In its heyday the NAAS had only about 2000 employees – RPA alone has 3,400 and Environment Agency 14,000 – so there are a lot of potential “advisors” out there.
Agricultural Training Board groups also worked well.
How do we regain the confidence of farmers? Especially for TB testing – we need better understanding about the test itself.
The opposite of ignorance is not knowledge but arrogance – which leads to instructions not relationships which grow trust and two way conversations.
We have lost the donnish journalist who really understands the science.
We need evidence to show that other systems work – case studies – and prayer.
Social justice and environmental justice are vital.
We all serve a creative God – Christian organisations need to work together better.
And we need to think global as well as local.
We need to go “perceptively where the doors are open”