Supermarket power threatens countryside

Environmental action group Friends of the Earth (FOE) has warned the Government that unless it urgently addressed the key issues of trade and supermarket power thousands of farmers will be forced out of business with disastrous effects for the countryside and the rural economy.

Neither issue has been tackled by the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food which is due to report next Tuesday.

FOE’s warning was today echoed by two farmers in Gloucester farmers.

Martin Harrell, an apple grower from Gloucestershire, confirmed the damage that uneconomic prices were having on fruit growers. He said: “Since December our prices have fallen by up to 10p per pound at a time when they should normally be going up. The industry could end up dumping thousands of tonnes of the best UK apple crop we have seen for many years. 

“The main reason for this problem is a lack of shelf space allocated to us by our supermarkets. Cheap imports from overseas have not helped the situation.

“If the major supermarkets continue to force prices down in this way, the UK won’t have a top fruit industry in ten years time, and all our orchards will be grubbed up. The Government must consider the impact such changes will have on our countryside.” 

Dairy farmer Gareth Watkins added: “Having just restocked after foot and mouth, I find that liquid milk prices are falling and are now below my production costs. My buyers are being squeezed by the supermarkets which sell liquid milk at below acceptable levels to attract customers. 

“I am being asked to run a business at a loss. I have done all I can to become efficient and meet high welfare and farming standards. But unless I get a fair deal from the supermarkets I will not be able to continue. The issue of fair trading must be urgently addressed.”

Pete Riley, FOE’s Agricultural Campaigner said: “Farmers must be given a fair deal. Current supermarket practice and government policy is squeezing out small and medium sized farmers. Unless the Government tackles the trading practices of the big food companies, many of the farmers that manage the countryside for the benefit of tourism and wildlife will disappear.”

FOE is calling on the Government to throw out the Code of Conduct drawn up by the Department of Trade and Industry last year which was meant to control the way major supermarkets deal with small suppliers including farmers. FOE considers that the Code which was agreed by the biggest supermarkets, is so weak that it simply legitimises the worst practices of the supermarkets. FOE also wants the Government to set up an independent watchdog for all supermarkets.

Other measures needed from Government to set farming in a more sustainable direction include:

* protecting UK farmers with high environmental and animal welfare standards from unfair trade rules;

* diverting subsidies away from production and redirecting them to towards farming practices that enhance the landscape and environment, and support for strong local food economies;

* directing funding from the Regional Development Agencies to local producers, processors and retail markets;

* a target for 30% of farmland to be organic by 2010, backed by an Action Plan to ensure that it is met.