The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room

On 4th September last year, Anna Hill, on Farming Today (Radio 4), began with this question:

“If British shoppers are spending £204 billion a year on food, why are farmers only seeing 4.5% of that?”[1]

She put the question to Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, and his reply was damning. In his view, farmers get very little of the money that consumers spend. It all goes either to food manufacturers that make a 15% return on capital employed, or to food retailers that are vast combines controlling and driving down food prices.

Anna asked Tim how farmers can ever try to get some of that money for themselves. This, he said, is “the big political question, that is the elephant in the room”.[2]  Catherine Broomfield, a local stock farmer from East Devon, echoed exactly that sentiment in an article in the Guardian on 12th September. In her view “The big elephant in the room, between farmers producing nutritious food and the food people put on their plates, is the powerful corporate interests of the food manufacturing and retail sector.[3]

Will this change with Brexit? Of course not – unless we all make sure the Government does much, much more to introduce a food policy that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.  As Tim Lang put it: “We have been drifting down the same path for the last 70 years… but that model (CAP) is already being exposed as the biggest driver of climate change, the biggest user of water, the biggest destroyer of ecosystems and the biggest preventable factor in diet related ill health, the source for the bankruptcy of the National Health Service.”

We all now know that the Common Agricultural Policy is a busted flush that has directly contributed to the impoverishment of our countryside through unsustainable agriculture.  The main argument in favour of Brexit is that it gives us the opportunity to take back control of our countryside and our agriculture. The operative words here are “the opportunity to take back control.” If we do nothing, the same old powerful corporate interests will continue to dominate and dictate our food policy. We shall pay a heavy price.

In Tim Lang’s view “the big question ought to be about re-writing who gets the money in the food chain. Everyone makes money off the land – why don’t we put more money into the land?”   Dairy farmers are still giving up at the rate of one a week, despite the introduction by the Government of the Grocery Code and Adjudicator system. We have to promote “a sea-change in the whole of the farming and food retailing and catering system”[4]

In Tim Lang’s view, the Grocery Code does provide a model for future action. The National Farmers Union (NFU) lobbied successfully for its introduction, but it has to be radically revamped and given the full force of the law to be effective. At the same time, Catherine Broomfield argues in her article that “diversity has to be the cornerstone of any agricultural policy capable of producing sufficient food in a way that delivers good outcomes for both humans and the plant.”  She argues that mixed farming was rejected in favour of large-scale specialised, intensified and industrialised farms. The National Trust encourages production methods with low environmental impact, including minimising energy use in production, packaging and transportation – and pays a fair price to its suppliers.

The big question posed by Professor Lang is “does the British public want a farming industry – yes or no?”  It is interesting that Professor Lang put that question to the British public, not farmers. Fairer prices and shorter supply chain issues are likely to dominate the debate about food for years to come. If the prices farmers receive continue to be driven down by the food manufacturers, processors and retailers – Brexit or no Brexit – there is little hope for a viable farming industry and the UK will become one vast theme park.

[1] Anna Hill, Farming Today, BBC4, 4 September, 2018

[2] Professor Tim Lang, Farming today, BBC4, 4 September, 2018

[3] Catherine Broomfield, The Guardian, 12 September, 2018

[4] Anna Hill, Farming Today, BBC4, 4 September, 2018