Co-op makes its mark at big farming conference

One of the key events of the agricultural calendar got 2011 off to a busy start for Christine Tacon CBE, head of Co-operative Farms, when she chaired the...

The event put the Co-op at the forefront of a wide-ranging programme which took in such vital issues as global perspectives on population growth, the future of farming subsidies and the survival of the planet.
Guests included DEFRA Minister Caroline Spelman, who delivered a keynote speech on building the food and farming sector.
Radio 4 journalist and Soil Association member John Humphrys was speaker at a pre-conference dinner, while other experts included Liberal Democrat MEP George Lyon and Irish Minister for Agriculture, Brendan Smith.
“The dinner with John Humphrys was particularly successful,” says Christine. “Instead of a set speech, he did a question and answer session.
“We had a brilliant Question Time-type event chaired by the editor of the Irish Farmers’ Journal; there were lots of fringe meetings too. We put a lot of work in spreading the message and it worked.”
As Managing Director of The Co-operative Farms, the UK’s largest farmer, Christine knows the sector well, but found plenty to learn over three days of debate.
She came away with a keen sense of the dangers posed to the planet by over-farming. “One of the best speeches I heard was by Professor Aubrey Manning, who gave a talk on population growth.
“He told us that by 2050 there are likely to be be nine billion people on the planet and that we will need 70 per cent more food. He said something else that really hit home, which is that one person in the UK’s carbon footprint is as much as 22 people in Bangladesh.
”The human species has twice the biomass of every species on earth, so I wonder why we have to push every other species off the planet.”
The global theme continued in an Oxford Union debate in which Green Party founder Jonathan Porritt took on former Cadbury’s boss Sir Paul Judge over the issue of unrestrained population growth and food security. The results will be seen on a future episode of Countryfile.
GM crops, water scarcity and hi-tech farming were also 
debated with a presentation from Jim McCarthy, an advocate of biotechnology in farming in the US and Argentina. The other side of the coin came from Chris Mack, of sustainable Thanet Earth in Kent, where hi-tech farming uses natural resources in a multi-million pound operation.
Throughout last year, Christine was busy ensuring the event got the maximum attendance. “We decided we were not spreading the message wide enough so we took it out to various agricultural events,” she says.
“Additionally I am now talking to agricultural colleges about getting things up on their websites so what we talked about can be used for educational purposes.”
Christine is now focusing on growing and consolidating the gains made by Co-operative Farms in the past 12 months. This year marks the 11th in which she has been a key part of the Movement. She joined the Co-operative Group in September 2000 from a background in marketing, having started her career in engineering. She was awarded a CBE for services to agriculture in 2004 and recently featured in BBC’s ‘Future of Food’ programme.
Her remit is more than 50,000 acres in England and Scotland, on ground owned by the Group itself as well as by private landowners. The business has a firm foundation in basic foodstuffs such as potatoes, onions, and peas. Apples are converted into the Co-op’s own cider.
Christine stresses the long history of Co-op farms, which started in 1896 and at one time embraced everything from dairy farms to tea plantations. Its current slimmed-down operation is still at the cutting edge of things – although there is still scope for improvement.
“One area where Co-op farms has not yet changed tack is in reducing the amount of packaging in its produce,” she says. “We are not doing anything yet on the way we are packing food, but we do recycle waste.
“That is part of a longer-term strategy and we need to agree which are the products and where are the areas we can change things.”
The organisation has addressed other issues, including Eastern European workers: they are now offered help with English and translation.
“We are doing extremely well,” adds Christine. “The conference was a great thing for us to have done, as well as an opportunity to hopefully build Co-op membership, and awareness of issues like Fairtrade – and offer samples of our produce!
“Because we are the Co-op, we have to be ethical and environmental in how we develop. I also think we are a big asset to farming because we are very good at what we do.”
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