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Food producers bank on the power of protest 

On both sides of the English Channel, farmers are taking their complaints over supply chain unfairness to the centre of political power. Nick Hughes reports.

The sight of hundreds of tractors blocking major routes into Paris last week will surely have struck a chord with UK food producers. Anger among French farmers has reached boiling point over a litany of perceived injustices ranging from excessive government bureaucracy, often linked to new EU environmental policies, to unfair competition from imports, escalating input prices and low prices received for their produce.

It follows weeks of similar protests across EU member states, including Germany and the Netherlands, over what many farmers feel is a commercial and policy environment that is pushing them to the brink.

Some of the farmers’ ire is directed at proposed reform to the EU’s subsidy regime which is designed to incentivise more nature-friendly farming – reform that supporters argue is essential for putting food production on a more sustainable long-term path.

Yet many of the grievances being expressed across the channel will be grimly familiar to domestic food producers. In January, farming groups warned that UK fruit and vegetable production is under threat from the soaring cost of inputs. A report commissioned by the National Farmers Union (NFU) and carried out by Promar International, a consultancy, found growers have had to cope with cost hikes of up to 39% over the past two years with strawberries, tomatoes, apples and lettuce among the produce most affected. Growers are consequently thinking about cutting production for the season ahead.

Supply chain challenges are not specific to horticulture. Last year, dairy producers warned that an exodus of farmers from the sector could jeopardise the UK’s current self-sufficiency in liquid milk as the average farm gate price failed to cover spiralling costs linked to the high cost of energy, fertiliser and feed.

UK farmers have yet to fill up their tractors and set the ‘Sat Nav’ for Westminster, however a Farmers Weekly poll published on Friday showed 69% of farmers are in support of French-style protests. 

What’s more, domestic food producers are starting to make their own grievances known in the geographical heart of national politics. Last month, in a powerful metaphor for the anonymity of food producers, 49 faceless scarecrows were placed outside the Houses of Parliament, representing the 49% of farmers who fear they will go out of business within the next 12 months. That’s according to a survey by coordinator of the stunt Riverford, which found that of those 49%, three quarters believe supermarket behaviour is a leading factor behind their potential demise.

The organic veg box supplier is going into bat for producers with a ‘Get fair about farming’ campaign. Last month, a petition calling on the government to stand up for British family farmers and put an end to their unfair treatment by supermarkets reached over 100,000 signatories, resulting in a debate in parliament on the same day the scarecrows made their silent stand.

Riverford has shared case studies of farmers who are at sharp end of the power imbalance between large buyers and small producers. It says one farmer grew 60 tonnes of salad potatoes for a large UK supermarket whereupon, come harvest time, the buyer decided they were no longer interested in that specific variety and cancelled the order, leaving the farmer facing a financial precipice along with a huge pile of unsold food.

Such stories illustrating abuse of power are nothing new, although the fact these practices persist suggests that efforts to rein in supermarket hegemony through the government-appointed Groceries Code Adjudicator continue to fall short. So what more can be done – including by retailers and foodservice brands – to ensure supply chain relationships are more equal and mutually beneficial?

Fair dealing

Riverford, as part of its campaign, is calling on buyers to adopt five principles for fair dealings with their producers: to buy what they have committed to buy; pay as quickly as is practically possible; commit to building long-term relationships with farmers; agree on fair specifications for the standards of a crop; and pay what they agreed to pay.

The UK government has also reached the conclusion – under pressure from farmers and their representatives – that business as usual is unsustainable. A new dairy code of conduct is set to come into force later this year which will enable dairy farmers to challenge prices, stop contract changes being imposed on them without agreement and ensure producers are able to more easily raise concerns. There will also be clear rules put in place on notice periods and contractual exclusivity, protecting the rights of both buyers and sellers. The case for government intervention to make supply chain relationships fairer is also being reviewed for eggs and fresh produce, while new regulations are being developed to govern pig contracts.

Ethical dairy

In January, the Food Ethics Council held an online summit on the future of dairy in which there was cross-sector support for a thorough and properly enforced code of conduct to regulate relationships between dairy producers and buyers. The event followed the publication last year of a FEC report titled ‘What needs to change in UK dairy?’, marking the culmination of a two-year project to support a shift towards fairer, more ethical dairy supply chains with a lower environmental footprint. In it, the NGO identified actions that could be taken across the supply chain to support positive change in the sector along with certain conditions needed for that change to occur. These included assurance that farmers will be rewarded for investing in nature-friendly farming methods; rebalanced risk across the sector to support farmers when transitioning to new systems; and flexibility in milk contracts so that farmers can experiment with new products and sell directly to their local communities.

The report highlighted the existence of a ‘get big or get out’ mentality among dairy farmers amid a race to the bottom between supermarkets on price. “Dairy farmers are currently ‘locked in’ to systems of production that are damaging to their own wellbeing, their animals and the planet,” says Abi Williams, dairy project lead at the FEC. “This mode of farming – producing as much as possible for as little as possible – cannot be sustained.”

The FEC report identified a number of specific actions retailers can take to support fairer dealings including an end to the sale of milk as a loss leading product, a commitment to pass premiums on the shelf onto those farmers using sustainable practices, as well as a commitment to design and promote products from a diversity of dairy systems with higher welfare and environmental standards.

Foodservice role

The report noted too how the foodservice sector is well placed to champion better and diverse dairy through changes in companies’ purchasing and sourcing commitments and by sharing knowledge with customers through, for example, social media or conversations at tables with customers.  Specifically, it called on foodservice businesses to raise the standards in processed dairy products –such as the cheese used on a pizza – that often contain milk with lower environmental and welfare standards than that of liquid milk, and to work with processors and manufacturers to create secure, fair and flexible contracts for farmers.

Last month’s summit found an appetite among participants – including those from foodservice, food retail, food manufacturing, processing, farming and the third sector – to progress at least some of these key asks amid a recognition that the dairy sector is under pressure.

The dairy supply chain has certain unique features, however the core principles of fairer dealing apply across the food spectrum. Without strong, sustainable relationships between buyers and producers, security of supply will remain under threat as more farmers go to the wall.

When the tractors and scarecrows return to their farms this winter, the message they leave behind must not be forgotten.