Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A Fair Deal for Dairy Farmers

Central Hall Westminster was packed last Wednesday afternoon when 2,500 dairy farmers from across the country gathered to show their solidarity against those dairy processors who propose to take up to 2p off the price paid for a litre of British milk.  

A Voluntary Code of Practice for contracts has been some time in the making and on Wednesday it was said agreement was needed on three words to finalise it, with both sides "conceding a lot".  Many were calling for legislation to make pricing fair.  Agricultural Minister Jim Paice MP felt this would not happen.  A call for the return of the Milk Marketing Board style body was rejected too, and emotions were running high.

Mr Paice had gone shopping that day and he brought to the podium a pint of milk for which he paid 49p, and a pint of bottled water for which he paid 53p, clearly demonstrating that something is wrong somewhere. 

I sat in front of a dairy farming family from Derbyshire; the farmer and his wife and their two sons of just six and seven years of age.  The parents, well aware that the boys’ hopes to grow up and continue the family farming tradition were at risk, deemed this crisis summit urgent enough that their sons should know what was going on, and they sat as good as gold throughout the whole of the proceedings.

The WI continues to stand by dairy farmers and has actively done so since 2005 when members voted on a resolution to "urge WI members to do all in their power to raise public awareness of the unfair difference between the retail prices of milk and the price paid to farmers".  The WI's Great Milk Debates across the country did indeed raise that awareness, and in the years since we have seen some progress with more retailers establishing dedicated relationships with the dairy farmers that supply them with fresh milk.  Yet this progress has not gone far enough.  Time and time again, we see the same cycle of farmers losing money on every litre of milk that they produce.  This tells me that the supply chain is failing to function properly.  All parts of the supply chain stand to benefit from maintaining a profitable, productive and healthy dairy industry, yet as events over the past two weeks have again shown us, the balance is wrong.  This problem was an issue the WI took up again in our 2010 Mission Milk campaign with the NFU.  Now yet again, we are getting behind our dairy farmers.    

It is a very sad truth that dairy farms have been closed across the country in high numbers in recent years:  producer numbers for England and Wales stood at 10,724 in May 2012; a fall of 172 or 1.6% over the last 12 months.  Since 2000, the number of UK dairy farmers has literally halved.   The Derbyshire farmer told me he thought he had about another six months for "things to pick up" before the bank came knocking at his door. 

The British public has to get behind these dairy farmers. Their herds produce liquid milk of a quality and hygiene standard higher than in any other country and of course there is a growing demand for British, local, quality, assured and traceable food; for products that consumers can trust and support.  With fewer dairy farmers the risk that this will lead to less product choice is very real.   Our farmers are custodians of the countryside who provide work for many more industries such as veterinary practices, animal feeds, engineering and more.  And indeed, these industries were also represented at the summit; both in solidarity with the dairy industry but also in fear for their own.

As consumers we can all play a role in encouraging retailers and processors to step up to the challenge and do the right thing by British dairy farmers.  Do take a look at the NFWI website to see what you can do to help. 

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Farmers in the firing line

I'd like to pay tribute to and thank all those intrepid WI members across England and Wales who, this summer especially, may very well encounter wet weather when ordering and running the WI tents at County Shows.  Sadly some shows have been cancelled this year, but some are still are going ahead – or have already taken place in the rain, and the new fashion seems to be posh frocks and wellies, which may be the only way to endure the hours of standing as a steward!  If the water rises so that the straw set down to absorb that water is floating on the surface, wellies really are the only way forward!

Weather and wet aside, some of the superb craft items displayed at these events really do show that the WI is the bastion of craft in this country.  When I visited the East of England Show on Friday, I was just delighted and amazed to see a tea cosy in the shape of the Sydney Opera House and chocolate that looked so real I thought it was an edible exhibit, which has been made with tiny beading and exquisite needle point.  Cookery, flower arranging and much more are all on display for wonderful viewing.

I expect many of these skills have been learned through the WI – this is the message from many new members joining the organisation – but it is surprising how so many 'new' talks, speakers and subjects have been round once before.  Rag rug making is having a revival, albeit in many guises other than rugs, and if zumba dancing had been all the rage in the 20s, it would have been in there with the Charleston.  

A subject that is certainly coming round again is the question of the price of milk.  It has been announced that from 1 August 2012, three of the big milk processors will be cutting up to 2p per litre from payment to dairy farmers.   Farmers need consumers to get behind them, and we all need a sustainable supply chain, to ensure the future viability of this key industry.  There is a growing demand for British, local, quality, assured and traceable food, a demand which British farmers can help us meet so it really is essential that we offer our help now in their time of need.  A crisis summit is taking place this afternoon from 1pm today (Wednesday 11 July) in Westminster Central Hall.  The WI will be there and if you can’t make it you can watch the talks online http://www.nfuonline.com/News/Dairy-Summit---WATCH-LIVE/.     

This urgent action has meant that I am very sadly unable to wave off fellow WI members on the inaugural WI and Saga cruise from Dover today - I trust that they will all have a wonderful time aboard the ship, and form new friendships that will last long after you have docked in your last stop.  The itinerary sounds fascinating and the scenery promises to be breathtaking journeying through the Norwegian fjords; I look forward to hearing all about the trip very soon.

Without urgent action there will be a further exodus from this vital industry. Perhaps it's time to have another WI member sitting in a bath of milk outside the Houses of Parliament to highlight this desperate situation.  Watch this space for an update!

Friday, 6 July 2012

Every Woman's Right

In the office this week I received a poem from a member describing her experience of attending the AGM at the end of May.  It was an absolute delight, with stanzas describing every stage of the meeting including the "More Midwives" resolution: "you'll be very pleased to hear, was passed by the majority, with a resounding cheer."

The NFWI is taking the first steps in the campaign, and in the meantime,  a major summit is to be held in London on 11 July on an international level, to help women around the world who do not have access to family planning.  The summit comes at an important time and, when the eyes of the world are starting to turn to other events in the capital, it shines a welcome and much-needed light on a set of issues which are fundamental to women's human rights. 

The figures are alarming: an estimated 220 million women do not have access to family planning.  What are the results of this unmet need? Research from Save the Children, released ahead of the summit, highlights that worldwide, complications in pregnancy are the number one killer of girls and young women aged 15-19.  Every year, 50,000 girls and young women die during pregnancy and childbirth.

We want the summit to mobilize unprecedented political commitment and resources from all sectors to help meet the needs of women in the world's poorest countries.   In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be invited to travel to Malawi with Oxfam to learn more about efforts to get Millenium Development Goal Five: to improve maternal health, back on track.  One of my hosts there was a first time mother to be, aged 18, who told me of her hope to become a nurse, a hope which she had given up on, leaving school before her exams when she became pregnant and married.   Another host, the mother of three boys, with a new baby due shortly, shared her desire to learn about contraception after the birth.  A desire which she told me was not something she felt she could share with her husband.  These stories are not unique, yet for too long, the voices of women have been absent from debates.       

Supply of contraceptive commodities is a major problem and of course, as delegates at next week's summit will hear, it is one that cannot be tackled effectively without qualified health workers on the ground.  And to achieve sustainable change, and truly ensure that the voices of the women I met in Malawi are heard, world leaders will need to ensure that commitment to gender equality and to empowering women remains central to discussions.  In practice this means women taking decisions about when and how many children.  It means every girl should have access to education that she is able to complete.  And it means all sections of society need to play a role in upholding women's rights.  Family planning is a cost effective way to improve outcomes.  Coupled with the empowerment of women it will help accelerate progress towards reaching the MDGs.  The WI looks forward to seeing global leadership on this issue. 

Monday, 2 July 2012

Green energy

Of all the days to choose to visit the north east of England I chose the 28th June, so I was there in the midst of the downpour and ended up having quite an adventure.  I was there at the very kind invitation of Tyne & Wear South federation, having been asked to speak to 180 WI members at a luncheon in The Stadium of Light.  My visit included a close up viewing of the Angel of the North, which I think is really rather beautiful and a fete of engineering; even more so when you are standing at the foot of the statue rather than glancing from the window of a train.  Traveling from Sunderland to Newcastle, I saw lighthouses and landmarks, ships and seagulls, and suddenly a big black cloud, and then a great downpour.  Drains and manholes became fountains, roads became fords through which cars gingerly and slowly drove - or rather, did not.  The cancellation of all trains meant I spent the night with a WI member friend and her family although it took us three and a half hours to travel less than 4 miles to her home! For me this cloud truly did have a silver lining; thank you A and H.

This week I read with interest that as a nation, we spend between £50 and £86 a year on standby power, which represents 9-16% of domestic power demand (we also watch television for an average of six hours a day rather than for five hours a day as we did five years ago).  This caught my attention because five years ago, the WI was calling for the standby mechanisms on many electrical products to be modified for less energy use, if not removed completely.  Much of this is to do with remote control and ease of access, but questions are now being asked in talks and conferences around the world on lessening energy consumption that we will watch developing. 

The case of community energy is also currently in the WI's remit and in the last few weeks, WI members have visited sites to see such schemes in action.  This follows my visit last November to Germany where community energy schemes are becoming quite the norm.  Llangattock Green Valleys is one such example in Powys where a community group got together to find ways of saving energy (and money) by reducing their personal and community footprint using renewable technologies such as solar and wind, water and wood fuel.  Take a look at their website; I’m sure many a community could think along these lines.  Coming together, pooling ideas and taking action can make a real difference.

In 1997, the WI adopted a mandate urging WI members to support "Agenda 21" and to work to further its social, economic and environmental aims.   Agenda 21 is a non-binding and voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations, which stemmed from the United Nations Conference on Environment and development  (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992.  It is a comprehensive blueprint of action to be taken globally, nationally, and locally by organisations of the UN, governments, and major groups in every area in which humans directly affect the environment.  Just days ago, the Rio +20 follow-up conference came to an end. The conference focused on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development, poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development.  How far have we come in 20 years?  Progress has been very limited,: but one thing I did note is a move towards greater sustainability, Rio+20 is the first major UN conference to carry out a “PaperSmart” programme to cut paper use, vastly reducing paper consumption by close to 20 million sheets.  Not quite a paperless conference, but I am pleased to say that certainly for the last four years, the NFWI has held paperless Board and committee meetings.  Just one of the many initiatives WI members undertake in sticking to Agenda 21.