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Supermarkets are driving farmers into the ground


SUPERMARKETS are creating a crisis that is devastating family farms. Research shows that due to unfair business practices, nearly half of British fruit and vegetable producers believe they will need to give up their farms in the next 12 months.

Organic farmer Guy Singh-Watson, who founded the Riverford veg box delivery company, said the future of family farms looks bleak. ‘About 85 per cent of fruit and vegetables grown in Britain are sold to the supermarkets,’ he said.

‘Thirty years ago, Riverford used to sell lettuces to Sainsbury’s. Halfway through the season they decided that instead of paying me 15 pence per head of lettuce they were only going to pay me 6 pence per head because they said the lettuces were going on promotion. In the end, I held them to their contract, and they did pay me 15 pence per head, but clearly they were never going to buy from me again.’

Another farmer described how a supermarket ordered 60 tons of potatoes but rejected them on harvest because it decided it wanted a different variety. That left a huge amount of food with no home, and the farmer in financial difficulty.

Mr Singh-Watson added: ‘Every year the price is driven down and down and down by the competitive tendering process with the supermarkets.

‘Every year you’re driven down not to the actual cost of producing the vegetables but to the cost of the seed and the labour. There will be no cost in that figure for maintaining the hedgerows, maintaining the ponds, and looking after nature. They’re drilling you down to what they call the “variable” costs of food production which in effect means you’re making a loss.

‘British agriculture is on its knees and most family farms think they’re not going to be in business for the next generation. I’m 66 [average age for farmers is 55], I have five children and none of them want to take over the farm because it’s just too hard to make a living.’

Farmers say the big six supermarkets, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Aldi, Asda and Lidl, cancel and change orders at the last minute, do not pay on time, slash prices even though they are agreed in contracts, buy cheaper alternatives from overseas and demand complex fruit and vegetable specifications. They also try to fool the British public into thinking that foreign imports are grown here by labelling them with fictitious farm names such as ‘Nightingale’ or ‘Willow’.

Mr Singh-Watson said: ‘Consumers want to know where their food comes from. Supermarkets create their own fake farms. I can’t believe it’s legal but apparently it is. It’s certainly not moral.’

The Fair Farming Survey is part of the #GetFairAboutFarming campaign launched by Riverford. Three-quarters of the 100 farmers surveyed (75 per cent) said that the behaviour of supermarkets is a leading concern within the industry. According to the research, more than one in five farmers (22 per cent) had suffered a wasted crop due to cancelled orders from supermarkets, and nearly a third (29 per cent) experienced supermarkets failing to pay them within 30 days.

Parliament could intervene. In December last year, they launched a public consultation exploring fair practice issues. In response to a petition with over 100,000 signatures calling for government to reform the Grocery Supply Code of Practice, Parliament debated the subject on January 22 this year.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: ‘The Government is committed to tackling contractual unfairness that can exist in the agri-food supply chain and Defra is working to support farmers and ensure they get a fair price for their products. We will bring forward legislation wherever necessary.’

It is fighting talk, and it seems Rishi Sunak is committed to helping farmers, although this could be a cynical ploy to win the rural vote. On February 22, he met Welsh farmers protesting about being forced to plant trees on 10 per cent of their land, and was given a letter asking the UK government to withhold funding from the Welsh government’s agricultural budget.

A government spokesperson said: ‘We are on the side of farmers, and just this week we announced a major new package of support for rural communities to protect British farming for the next generation. This includes the largest ever grant offer to farmers in the coming financial year, expected to total £427million, including an unprecedented package of funding for technology and productivity schemes.’

Meanwhile, in 2022 the supermarkets announced record profits of more than £4billion while according to the charity Food Foundation, who are fighting for a sustainable food system, 7.3million adults reported going without food because they could not afford it. In 2023, food price inflation stood at 18.3 per cent.

Tesco was the biggest winner. They made more than £2billion in 2022 and increased their profit from 2021 by 220 per cent. That dropped to £1billion in 2023. Asda made £1billion in 2022 and Sainsbury’s made £854million, which dropped to £327million in 2023.

These are lottery-style numbers that farmers can only dream of. Pembrokeshire potato farmer Tessa Elliott said: ‘It’s scary because we have to ask ourselves: What is it all for? Why are we putting in all these hours and doing what we love – ultimately to grow a premium potato to put on people’s plates all year round – if we can’t afford to feed ourselves?’

Kath Dalmeny, CEO of Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, said: ‘Farmers and food suppliers need far better protection from unfair and sometimes abusive practices by the big supermarkets. Retailers make unreasonable demands, create waste, and keep too much of the value.

‘Our research shows that farmers and growers typically get less than a penny of the profit on packs of everyday foods. Many are thinking of leaving farming because it is such hard work for so little financial return, just when we need to increase production and consumption of sustainable fruit and veg. Government must step in and strengthen the rules so that more and better fruit and veg is available and affordable for all.’

The campaign’s open letter is signed by more than 100 celebrities, farming organisations, restaurateurs and supporters, including food activist and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Dragons’ Den star Deborah Meaden, farmer and musician Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons, environmental activist Vandana Shiva, author of Oneness vs the 1% and Stolen Harvest: the hijacking of the global food supply, Jimmy Woodrow, executive director of Pasture for Life, an organisation promoting grass-fed livestock, Helen Browning, CEO of the Soil Association, and farmer and television presenter Jimmy Doherty.

Net Zero targets drawn up by a government-funded consortium of six universities propose that all shipping and flights cease by 2029 and that electric trains and electric vehicles become the dominant mode of transportation. Cheap imports will be impossible if this comes to pass while fake meat will make billions for its producers such as Bill Gates, so more than ever domestic food security is vital. See more information here.

I contacted the big six supermarkets; three responded. Sainsbury’s said: ‘We are proud of our 150-year history of supporting British farmers and source British as much as we possibly can. Over the last year along Sainsbury’s has paid over £72million of support to British farmers.’

Lidl sent this statement: ‘Andrew Opie, Director of Food and Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: “Food retailers’ source, and will continue to source, the vast majority of their food from the UK and know they need to pay a sustainable price to farmers. Given the pressure on British farmers at the moment, retailers are paying more for their produce. However, retailers are also facing additional costs and are working incredibly hard to bring down food price inflation at a time when many households are struggling to afford the essentials.”’

Tesco responded but did not provide a statement.

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Sally Beck
Sally Beck
Sally Beck is a freelance journalist with 30 years of experience in writing for national newspapers and magazines. She has reported on vaccines since the controversy began with the MMR in 1998.

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