clean ponds and encouraging bees: Bayer influences public debate on future of farm subsidies

A public survey, paid for by mega Agrichemical industry business Bayer, has found that three quarters of the public supports farmers continuing to receive subsidies. So far the survey has received little publicity, just a couple of articles in the farming press.







On the face of it this survey would give succour to those arguing for “business as usual” for farm support after Brexit. But it’s always worth scratching beneath the surface of these articles to look at the data – and, more importantly, what questions were being asked and answered.

the first, main question asked of the Populus members (it was Populus who conducted the survey for Bayer: these surveys cost between £5,000 and £10,000)

To what extent do you think farmers are important or not important to the UK economy and way of life?

Note that the question has been carefully designed to conflate “economy” and “way of life”. This will inevitably change the answers given, compared with two questions asking separately about economy and way of life.

the headline figure is that 95% of respondents agreed that farmers were important to the “economy and way of life”.

There was however a very interesting divergence of views based on age of respondent. 37% (of a small sample) of 18-24 year olds only thought that farming was “quite important” while only half that proportion of 65+ year olds felt farming was only “quite important”. Conversely 80% of 65+ year olds felt farming was “very important” compared with 55% of 18-24 year olds.

Question 3 (we don’t know what happened to question 2, perhaps it didnt give the right answer) was

To what extent, do you think it is important or not important that the UK produces its own food

this is obviously a “food security” question, though again it does not ask how much of the food consumed in the UK,  should we produce. The Government suggests we are currently 76% self-sufficient in food – though I believe that figure rather unhelpfully includes exported food which is then netted off against imported food. This figure hides many important details too – although we are 85% self sufficient in meat and dairy, that figure drops to 23% for fruit and veg (excluding potatoes.)

Would anyone seriously suggest that it was not important for the UK to produce any of the food we consume? Amazingly (to me) 6 out of 2084 respondents believed it was not at all important. Leaving aside these individuals, a surprising 2% believed it was not very important that the UK produced any food of any kind at all.

More seriously, 75% agreed it was “very important” that the UK produced some food for its own consumption, while 22% agreed it was “fairly important”.  Again the age difference in views is really striking. For 18-24 year olds, only 55% felt it was “very important” that the UK produces its own food, compared to 84% of 65+ year olds.

The following questions were about GMOs. For some strange reason these weren’t mentioned in the farming press article., but I’ll mention them briefly here. the first GMO question was

Q.5 Populations worldwide are growing, while the available land to grow crops is reducing. One solution to ensure we have enough food is to reduce crops’ vulnerability to disease through genetically modified (GM) crops which have extra genes inserted into them. Based on what you know about genetically modified crops, which of the below best describes your views about the development of GM foods?

now that’s not a loaded question is it? Based on that remarkably biased question, 10% said they thought

“I think [GMOs] are the only way forward”.

I kid you not, that was the first option.

For those who failed to fall into the trap, 54% chose

“I agree with them in principle, provided there are no negative consequences related to health or the environment”

while 27% chose “I don’t agree with crops being genetically modified.”

I guess this wasn’t the answer Bayer was looking for, so they didnt publicise it. It was also interesting to see that there was a big gender split on GMOs. 21% of men but 33% of women don’t agree with GM crops, while 12% of men and only 7% of women though they were “the only way forward.”

Less than half of women polled agreed with GMOs in principle.

The next question (4) was also removed from the results, with question 5 asking about “gene editing”.

Bayer and other Agri-corps are trying to reframe the GMO debate by introducing the idea that “gene edited” crops are somehow not GMOs. They claim that gene editing only uses the crops own natural genes; and is therefore practically the same as traditional plant breeding. I did a biochemistry degree in ancient times and I can tell you this is bullshit. Gene editing could eventually enable crop scientists to change every single DNA base in a crop plant or livestock genome, including creating the same genes that current GMO technology crudely implanted into the genome. Gene Editing is just the next generation of crop tech. I’m not say it’s good or bad.

Anyway Bayer’s question was

Gene editing, where existing genes in the plant are optimised, is a new technology increasingly being used in human medicine to deal with diseases which otherwise are very difficult to deal with. It is also increasingly being used as a way of breeding new crop varieties that are more resistant to pests or drought, for example. Which of the following best describes your opinion on gene editing?

note how the PR experts at Bayer cleverly introduced human medicine into the question. If it’s being used in human medicine it must be a) safe and b) a thoroughly good idea, surely?

This time, respondents were not given the opportunity to agree that gene editing “was the only way forward”. overall only 51% agreed that

“If it is safe, then I am happy for gene editing to be used in crops”.

Safe for whom?

49% felt they either did not know or did not agree with gene editing.

Not surprisingly the same gender split revealed itself with this question. 29% of women were unhappy with the idea of gene editing, and only 44% were happy if it was safe.

Question 7 introduced the notion that farmers do stuff which helps nature. Unhelpfully the word ‘biodiversity’ was used. I have written copiously about the importance of language in communicating to different audiences about nature. When asked in one uk public survey, 80% of people thought it was a washing powder. Any here’s the question:

Q.7 Do you think farmers have a role to play in ensuring biodiversity (maintaining a variety of plant and animal life in the world) – e.g. building ponds, planting trees, planting rarer plants, protecting wildlife, encouraging bee population growth?

Here we have an insight into what Bayer think farmers do for nature, and what sort of picture Bayer wants to paint for the public, about farmers and nature. Leaving aside what on earth “ensuring biodiversity” means, in Bayer’s world (or the picture they paint) farmers help nature by

  • building ponds,
  • planting trees,
  • planting “rarer” plants,
  • protecting wildlife and
  • encouraging bees.

Note things like ponds, trees and planting “rarer” plants are not things that are done in crops. Protecting wildlife could mean anything at all.

Encouraging Bees is something Bayer are very keen on. Here’s a lovely expensive looking website to reassure you that Bayer loves Bees. Oh but Bayer also manufactures Neonicotinoids. Which kills bees and a wide range of other invertebrates.

Anyway what are these “rarer” plants, why are farmers planting them, and why are they more important than “rare” plants or “common” plants. Talk about confusing!

After all this confusion (which I am sure was accidental) imagine the public wondering what washing powder has to do with farming. Perhaps the ponds, once built, need a good clean so they can be better for nature.

Unsurprisingly there was a large “don’t know” vote for this one, up to 15% for 35-44 year olds and 14% in the south-west. Blokes thought they understood the question and there were only 8% don’t knows.

Those who thought they did understand the question voted overwhelmingly for the positive. 84% believed farmers have a role in “ensuring” biodiversity. And who can argue with that? All those ponds being built (and cleaned), trees and “rarer” plants being planted hither and thither; Bees being encouraged to buzz around: “come on bee – you can do it – lots of lovely pollen on this oilseed rape….. oh, you’ve died.”

And so to the culmination of all this questioning, obfuscation and confusion: Question 10.

UK farmers currently get payments (funded by UK taxpayers) back from the European Union for growing food and looking after the environment. Once we leave the European Union, do you think taxpayers should or should not continue to fund these activities?

Bear in mind a number of subliminal messages have already been inserted in the lead up to this question. Farmers are part of the British “way of life”, we need to produce more food to feed a hungry world, GM crops are good, we need to grow GM crops, we are now calling them gene edited crops (repeat after me), these are even safer, farmers look after nature by planting trees, building clean ponds and encouraging bees….

Also note that the question implies that the CAP funding for farmers is split equitably between support for growing food and looking after the environment. This is of course rubbish. In fact there no direct support for growing food, and hasn’t been since 2004. Farmers can receive the money and produce no food at all – look at the £4M paid to Grouse Moor Owners, who only have to do some “sheep management” to get the money. Or indeed the Saudi Prince who received £400,000 last year in CAP payments  for his Suffolk stud farm. Only about 20% of the CAP pot paid out in the UK goes directly towards projects that help the environment generally, and less than that is spent specifically on nature. Very little at all is spent on planting trees.

41% agreed that “Once we leave the European Union, taxpayers should continue to fund these activities – both growing food and looking after the environment are two things which are far too important to lose”

11% felt the focus should be primarily on the environment

21% felt the focus should be primarily on food production

9% felt the money should be spent elsewhere

16% didn’t know.

This was confusingly reported in Farmers Weekly as  “three quarters of the public believe farmers should continue to be subsidised by the taxpayer.”

Actually only 41% much less than half, felt that farmers should continued to be paid to grow food and look after the environment. Looking  a bit deeper, the figure was only 35% for 18-24 year olds, compared with 45% for 55-64 year olds.

Support from those who wanted a focus on support for the environment also varied greatly. 17% of 18-24 year olds wanted most spent on the environment, compared with 7% in the 65+ bracket; and 16% of those living in the Eastern region support this.

For those wanting more of an emphasis on food production, the largest proportion (29%) were over 65, while an equal number of 18-24 year olds wanted a focus on food as a focus on the environment.

Quite a significant number of people didn’t want subsidies of any kind to continue – 13% of 35-54 year olds. I guess they were thinking about things like the need to support education and health care. that figure dropped dramatically to 6% for the 55-64 year olds and 7% for over 65’s.

22% of 18-24 year olds did not know what they thought but only 12% of the over 65’s.

Apart from a reasonably clever bit of spin by Bayer (who are in the middle of a $66Bn take over of GM and Glyphosate manufacturers Monsanto), what else does this survey tell us?

I take heart from the thought that young people across society appear to care quite seriously about the relationship between nature and farming. And I think that the views of the over 65’s are heavily influenced by memories of the war, rationing and as I call it the “u-boats in the channel” approach to food security. Whereas there is no place for this imagery in modern day Britain, for a generation, this was reality, and we should not forget it.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agriculture, agrochemicals, bees, biodiversity, Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to clean ponds and encouraging bees: Bayer influences public debate on future of farm subsidies

  1. Julian Jones says:

    Great post … “loaded questions” indeed.

    Food production really should not need a great deal more than labour, sun & rain; otherwise grants and subsidies so often just enable incompetence and inefficiency, including agrochemicals and so much ‘greenwash’.
    In the case of rain, store it to save downstream from flooding (eg £5 billion cost of most recent UK major floods) and reuse of stored water can usually at least double farm productivity (eg irrigation, pumped storage etc). Here is the replacement for farm subsidies/income … and when farmed appropriately to the local ecology, negating the need for chemicals (another hidden £billions cost to public to remove from water supply etc).

    But farmers do need help to escape from the subsidy racket, a huge transition in skills & activities – much like the wider re-balancing of our economy, and part of this process, also required if we are to resolve climate & migration issues.

    Here is one UK farm, storing rainwater to boost year round horticulture and other produce. Employing 20 persons in meaningful work on 500 acres, using carefully evolved and developed traditional rotational farming, without any toxic chemicals. 20min film :
    Similar farming techniques supporting 40,000 workers in Egypt : 12min,

    As explained in NYT op-ed : “… there are dozens of time-tested strategies that our best farmers and ranchers have begun to use. The problem is that several agribusiness advocacy organizations have done their best to block any federal effort to promote them, including leaving them out of the current farm bill, or of climate change legislation at all. ” “One strategy would be to promote the use of locally produced compost to increase the moisture-holding capacity of fields …” “ … we need to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles to using small- and medium-scale rainwater harvesting … food production can be greatly enhanced through proven techniques of harvesting rain and biologically filtering grey water … ”. New York Times, 21 July 2013

    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much Julian. Apparently half a million ponds were lost from British farmland during the 20th century – 75% of all of them. That’s an awful lot of water no longer being stored.

      • Julian Jones says:

        Yes, and even before the loss of ponds, I believe we went from around 25% UK land area as wetlands (pre-human intervention) to less than 2% now.

        All this can and should be empirically planned going forward now, particularly in respect of flood risk and related issues of soil carbon sequestration.

        Re-wilding fits in well here too and as probably the only ethical use of subsidies; estimate around 30% UK land area, much of it wetland, should/could be re-wilded.

  2. Thanks for raising awareness of this survey Miles, and in a slightly more impartial manner than Farmers Weekly.

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