WITH the demise of major agricultural institutions such as the Royal Show and Smithfield and with the arrival of devolution, the excuses for the Scottish farming press to voyage south have been diminished.
However, the Oxford farming conference is still in good health and, since it can attract the highest-quality speakers, it is well worth the traipse down country even in the depths of January.
It serves up a wider vision of the industry than is sometimes provided within this small country in the north-western corner of Europe; an important point as we must constantly fight against having a “wee country” parochial outlook. This would be dishonouring our forefathers who established Scotland’s position on the world stage.
Importantly, a conference such as Oxford also provides a counterpoint to Scottish Government policies, as it usually provides the UK minister with a platform. I recall that even Margaret Beckett making a fleeting visit.
Owen Paterson came along to the latest event and added to his increasing reputation for telling it as he sees it. After a dodgy start with “Badgergate” – a policy inherited from his predecessor; he made a hasty withdrawal from a trial cull – he has been putting a businesslike stamp on his ministry.
He made it clear his government does not like direct support payments and wanted them gone. In the coming months in Common Agricultural Policy negotiations, he will fight that corner – although he admitted from the Oxford conference rostrum that he was unlikely to get his way.
Back came the Scottish Government point of view from cabinet secretary Richard Lochhead, who described Paterson’s comments as fit only “for the golden home counties and not for Scotland”.
But the bigger north-south divide came later when environmental campaigner Mark Lynas gave an impassioned speech in favour of genetic modification of crops.
In his early life, Lynas admitted he spent time trashing GM crop sites, but last week at Oxford he instead comprehensively trashed those who oppose introducing the new technology.
He declared the debate over, pointing out that, after a decade and a half where no-one had died from eating GM food, “you are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than be hurt by eating GM food”.
He then compared the organic movement with the lifestyle of the Amish in Pennsylvania, who do not use technology and continue to operate with horses and carts. The organic movement is a rejectionist one, he claimed, freezing technology around 1950 – although permitting the use of flamethrowers or electric currents to blast weeds.
Turning to Scotland and its government, Lynas said it seemed to “prefer medieval superstition as a strategic imperative rather than being guided by science”.
Now this came just after Paterson had pointed out that in 2011, some 16 million farmers in 29 countries across the world grew GM products on 160 million hectares. For those that like comparisons, that would cover the whole of the UK (including Scotland) six times – and that is before Russia, which last week admitted GM maize into that vast country, gets in on the act.
Across the road from the conference, an alternative meeting takes place and this usually provides a differing view on life from the “big agribusiness” view often ascribed to the main event.
This time that was not the case, as one of the leading organic distributors was bemoaning the loss of glamour from this sector.
By now the “rooted in Scotland” reporter is somewhat at a loss, as the Scottish Government has set its face firmly against the introduction of GM technology and speaks warmly in favour of organic production.
It might just be my imagination but Lochhead always seems slightly diffident in defence of the no GM policy. He is, after all, a “get out and about” politician and as such he is closer to reality than some of his political colleagues.
When questioned on the Lynas attack, the official Scottish Government spokesman referred to the non-GM policy as being the “will of the people”.
I may be wrong, but I do not recall ever being asked specifically about GM food. Perhaps we should add a second question on it on the independence referendum coming along next year.
Until we sort it out, the country looks as if it has the tunnel vision of the proud mother who on seeing the army march through the town declared: “They are all out of step bar Jock.”