An audience of farmers and members of the public demanded more support for local food, at a debate on the future of farming and food, organised by Friends of the Earth in Exeter [1] this week.

Reacting angrily to suggestions from NFU Policy Director Martin Haworth, that UK livestock farmers must become more efficient to compete with overseas farmers for supermarket trade, audience members said they were being forced out of business by the supermarkets' stranglehold.

Falling farm-gate prices and over-regulation meant some farmers could only operate at a loss - yet consumers are not seeing a fall in prices in the shops, the debate was told.  Liana Stupples of Friends of the Earth described how supermarket buyers play-off farmers globally to force down the price they pay, with food transported around the world as a result.  Links were also made between intensive farming, the global movement of food and the succession of crisis that have hit the UK food and farming industry over the last two decades.

From the platform, Mike Hart of the Small and Family Farmers' Alliance, called for support for farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to be shifted away from commodity crops to local food, helping diversify UK agriculture.  He called for a Local Food Targets Bill for supermarkets, with tax incentives to support local food, and said that Regional Development Agencies must play a role.

But he added that there must also be major changes to world trade rules, removing agricultural goods from WTO rules and allowing individual countries to concentrate on growing a wider range of foods for their own consumption.

Panel member Jeanette Longfield of Sustain said food should be zingy, zappy, fresh and local, with less bland mass-produced processed foods.  This would be healthier for consumers, have less impact on the environment and provide a better future for UK farming, she said.

Concerns were raised over food safety, but Dr Richard Harding of the Food Standards Agency said that although many food safety problems started on farms, the best approach was to deal with potential hazards at the appropriate point in the food chain, not necessarily on the farm.  And although longer food chains could increase the chance of problems arising, there were also examples where local suppliers were at fault.

There were calls for legislation to curb the power of large food companies and supermarkets and for Off Shop  to be appointed, as an independent regulator.  Many members of the audience called for the interests of smaller and medium sized farmers to be more strongly presented to Government - especially given that the Food and Mouth outbreaks dramatically brought home the links between farmers and rural tourism.

At the meeting Friends of the Earth (FOE) launched their new report setting out their ideas for turning around the fortunes of UK agriculture - Get Real About Food and Farming  [2].

Pete Riley, Senior Real Food and Farming Campaigner for Friends of the Earth said:

This meeting shows that the only way out of the current food and farming crisis is for farmers and consumers to work together to press for real policy changes to secure a sustainable future for Britain's farmers and countryside.

"It is clear that the current system of food production does not work - farmers are not making a living wage, consumers are wary of the food that is on sale and the rural environment is seriously degraded.  We hope this is the first of many meetings where people  all along the food chain can come together and start looking for lasting solutions to problems we all face.


Notes

1.  The Get Real About Food and Farming debate, held at the Thistle Hotel, Exeter on Wednesday 21st November, was organised by Friends of the Earth with support from the Small, and Family Farmers Alliance, CCWS Retail and the Western Morning News.  The debate was chaired by Samantha Smith of BBC SW .  Panel members were Mike Hart of the Small and Family Farmers Alliance, Jeanette Longfield of Sustain, Martin Howarth of the NFU, Richard Harding  of the Food Standards Agency and Liana Stupples of Friends of the Earth.

2.    Get Real About Food and Farming - Friends of the Earth's vision for the future of farming in the UK is available at www.foe.co.uk/campaigns/real_food/resource/get_real/