A fair fight on our hands

On 22 January 2024, Riverford headed to the Houses of Parliament to see their #GetFairAboutFarming petition championed by MPs across all the major political parties.

In September 2023, organic veg box company Riverford sent an open letter to the CEOs of the ‘Big Six’ supermarkets, warning them that ‘British farming is on its knees.’ The letter was supported by the Get Fair About Farming e-petition, which garnered overwhelming support from the public – rapidly reaching the threshold of 100,000 signatures needed in order to be debated by Parliament.

The letter arose from research by Riverford, which found that 49 per cent of British fruit and vegetable farmers fear they are likely to go out of business in the next 12 months. A stark statistic, represented by the 49 scarecrows ‘protesting’ outside the Houses of Parliament on the day of the cross-parliamentary debate this week. Faceless and nameless, the scarecrows also hint at the fact that many farmers are unable to discuss their experiences of supermarket buying practices openly, for fear of repercussions.

The live-streamed debate was well attended by MPs across the major parties, all of which were present to voice the concern that farmers are not getting a fair deal, and that things need to change, fast, if British farming is to have a future.  

A mix of rural and urban MPs came together to share their constituents’ experiences – painting a very clear picture of the increasingly insurmountable challenges faced by farmers, and their crucial importance as “guardians of the countryside”. Sarah Dyke, Lib Dem MP for Somerton and Frome, continued: “They know that farming and the environment are intrinsically linked. They are responsible for keeping our natural biodiversity flourishing. If we drive family farms out of business, they will be replaced with larger, industrial farms that will be less entrenched in our communities and care less about protecting biodiversity.”

She concluded, “I cannot emphasise this point strongly enough: if we want to maintain our beautiful British countryside, we need to protect our farmers. Farmers need to be able to plan ahead. They need commitment from others in the supply chain, but all too often, that trust is broken as supermarkets vie for cheaper food, reject produce at short notice or simply change their minds, leaving farmers without a market, without an income or security, and so often without a future.”

David Jones, Conservative MP for Clywd West, also brought the power imbalances between producer and supermarket into sharp contrast when he stated: “Around 95 per cent of the food consumed in this country is sold by just 12 retailers, many of which are multibillion-pound listed companies. The disparity in bargaining strength is obvious. According to the agricultural charity Sustain, farmers often receive less than a penny of the profit generated by their produce, with farm businesses increasingly relying on subsidies to break even, and 40 per cent of farms earning less than £25,000 annually.”

“Supermarkets have made absolutely astronomical profits during the cost-of-living crisis and have not been feeling the squeeze in the same way that farmers and consumers have,” said Helen Morgan, Lib Dem MP for North Shropshire. “I would like to see the amount of profitability through the supply chain looked at and managed so that we keep our farmers in business and do not have to import food from across the world.”

“Farmers are often disenfranchised in the agri-food supply chain,” added Sarah Dyke, Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome. “Polling shows that 88 per cent of the public think it’s important that farmers are paid fairly for their work – and they’d even pay a little more if they knew it went to support British farming. But food doesn’t have to be expensive. Just a bigger proportion needs to go back to the farmer.”

Recent research has indeed shown this to be true for the British public; even in the midst of the cost-of-living crisis, people “don’t want cheap food at any cost,” says Sue Pritchard, Chief Executive, Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. “They want government to support farmers and level the playing field for fair food and farming.”

The debate closed with Mark Spencer, the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, responding to the MPs’ concerns: “The Government want all farmers to receive a fair price for their products, and we are committed to tackling contractual unfairnesses in the agrifood supply chain. The key issue is that relatively few farmers sell directly to supermarkets. Far more often, they sell their produce through intermediaries and processors, and the Government are therefore committed to using powers in the Agriculture Act to introduce statutory codes that apply across the whole supply chain to deliver fair prices to all farmers.”

He continued: “We have worked closely with the industry to ensure that the regulations are tailored and proportionate, and provide the flexibility required in a global commodity market. They will create a new enforcement regime, and we will appoint an adjudicator to oversee compliance for our sector-specific codes. The regulations are undergoing final checks before their planned introduction to Parliament, as I say, hopefully before the Easter recess.”

In response to the Minister’s comments, Riverford founder Guy Singh-Watson added: “While it was great to hear unanimous and cross-party support for all aspects of our petition, it is certain there is still some way to go to achieve real fairness for farmers. We hope that with the groundswell of support behind the Get Fair About Farming campaign, we can shine a light onto the bullying behaviour of supermarkets and their suppliers, and push for a return of honesty and decency to our supply chains.”

What does Riverford’s Get Fair About Farming campaign call for? For supermarkets to commit to farmers for the long term, to agree on fair specifications, to pay farmers what they agreed to pay, to buy what they agreed to buy and to pay on time – without exceptions. Learn more at getfairaboutfarming.co.uk 

Follow the ongoing debate @wickedleeksmag @riverford 


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