Time to get fair about farming! UPDATE

Image by Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Update: Riverford’s petition will be debated in parliament Jan 22 with potentially important ramifications for farmers across the UK. We’ll be listening in.

Devon-based Riverford (of veg box fame) have launched a new #GetFairAboutFarming campaign, calling for British supermarkets to sign up to the principles of Riverford’s Fair to Farmers charter:

  • Pay what you agreed to pay.
  • Buy what you committed to buy
  • Agree on fair specifications
  • Commit for the long term
  • Pay on time

Riverford’s petition, which you can sign here, calls on the government to intervene to protect Britain’s broken food system from further collapse.

Guy Singh-Watson of Riverford has had enough. He’s had enough of seeing a frightening decline in the UK’s self-sufficiency in food. He’s had enough of seeing farmers paid less and less for their produce (with their share of the profit estimated at less than a penny on everyday foods) to the point where it becomes impossible to stay in business. He’s had enough of farmers having uncertainty upon uncertainty heaped on them so that forward planning becomes a lottery and investment an incalculable risk. He’s had enough of seeing small farms driven into the ground and then snapped up by industrial farm operators.

“Single enterprise, large scale farming is almost always an environmental disaster’ he says, citing the poultry farms on the Wye that have contributed to the river’s serious decline. ‘It’s bad for biodiversity, bad for animal welfare – the mega herds of 1000 plus cattle are far less likely to go outside, for example – and it’s riskier, too.”

All our eggs in one basket…

He’s definitely had enough of the big supermarket chains inventing fake farms so that they can deny the consumer traceability information and exploit the producer and grower, whose identity has been subsumed into the fake brand.

“It’s dishonesty’ he says, ‘and it’s no use the supermarkets claiming that only the wealthy are interested in where their food comes from. People from all income groups really do care, yet they are denied the opportunity to know who grew their fruit and veg. And why? So the supermarkets can rob the farmers of their negotiating power and keep prices unrealistically low. They could put QR codes on produce easily enough, but they don’t. They won’t. Forcing farmers into anonymity means the supermarkets have all the power.”

Not many farmers are willing to speak out. Their hard-won, barely sufficient livelihood is at risk if they fall out with the supermarkets, so people are too scared to tell the truth. It’s almost a form of enslavement. There’s the Groceries Supply Code of Practice, which is meant to prevent exploitation, but, like so many other areas of regulation (see the water companies!), ‘exceptional circumstances’ get-outs make it all too easy for the code to be broken time and time again. And when the six major buyers account for 85 per cent of farmers’ output, who is brave enough to take them on?

Supermarket buyers, Guy explains, are motivated by short term gains: the margin per foot of shelf space is the only metric that really matters. Long term food security? They aren’t bothered.

“When I started in the business, forty years ago, the UK was about 80 per cent self-sufficient in food as a whole and not far off that for fruit and veg. Now it’s about 50 per cent [and declining] for the latter. Self-sufficiency for the entire food basket is probably no more than 65 per cent.”

Brexit and trade deals like the CPTPP have further disadvantaged domestic producers as government reneged on commitments to impose food and welfare standards at least as good as those under which UK farmers operate. As for any sort of green agenda….well, that’s barely considered. Food miles, sustainability, carbon sequestration? Not factored in.

‘British’ apples grown in, errrr, Chile

Farming is an uncertain enough business as it is thanks to the vagaries of the weather and the impact of climate change, but fickle government policy, ever-changing regulation and an absence of any long-term plan for sustainability in UK food production all compound the pressure and stress. On top of all that, the exploitative, sometimes abusive behaviour of the supermarkets means that there is little or no security for farmers. A business can be destroyed overnight by a cancelled order, failure to pay what was agreed or delays in paying at all. All of this makes for enormous strain on farmers’ mental health. No wonder so many farmers are quitting the business.

“It’s a cutthroat industry with zero respect for human relationships. It’s all so unnecessary. It’s not even good business practice! I compare it with the car industry where the big manufacturers really co-operate with the small suppliers, leading to positive, robust, enduring relationships. With the supermarkets, it’s just short-termism and, right now, profiteering. Food inflation is running in the teens and how much of that is going to the farmer? Precious little. 
“Small and medium sized farmers are pulling out their hair in despair. Meanwhile, the CEOs of the big companies are earning around £4m a year, while their companies rake in record profits. It’s the consequence of a ‘greed is good’ culture. It’s short-sighted and a miserable way to treat people and we simply can’t go on like this.”

A survey of British fruit and vegetable farmers, carried out by research firm Opinion Matters, found almost half (49%) fear they will go out of business in the next 12 months, with the behaviour of supermarkets cited as a leading factor.