This week, Parliament debated Riverford Farm’s petition for a fairer deal for small farmers. They have pointed out that alarmingly, just under 50% of small farms growing fruit and veg are at risk of going out of business, with 75% of them stating that supermarkets are to blame. This petition, signed by over 100k people, not only shows the strength of feeling many of us have about our food and its origin, but also the huge appreciation and need for our small farmers.
Riverford have put forward five principles that need to be adopted by supermarkets and their producers. Specifically, that; supermarkets buy what they committed to buy, pay on time, commit to long term arrangements, agree on fair specifications and finally, pay what they agreed to pay. Readers might be alarmed that such simple principles need to even be stated at all. But for too long, many farmers have been at the mercy of last minute changes brought on by supermarkets.
This instability has ground down the enthusiasm of small farmers across the country, it has aggravated working relationships and reduced confidence in the future of farming. We are rightly proud of what we grow on these shores, and through Acts such as the Agriculture Act and Procurement Act, significant steps have already been taken to improve the support and encouragement provided for farmers. However, if the relationship with the private sector is not working then further investigation needs to be held.
Already the reviews held by the Government into the pork and poultry markets of the UK have set new standards that are showing tentative positive outcomes, but more needs to be done. We need the Government to use the Agriculture Act to its full potential. The laws within it contain the right to enshrine contracts between producer and supplier, to update the powers of the Groceries Supply Code of Practice, and to use our food security reviews to ensure we are moving up, not down, the scale.
As, I have written in these pages before, we should also use the Procurement Act to utilise the Government’s £4.6bn public food procurement spending to provide greater access to small farms and small producers. For too long, these enormous budgets have only been accessible to large distributors and enormous food producers, the Act, passed last year, provides a new opportunity for Government to help create new supply chain systems and actively encourage small farmers to take advantage of local contracts for schools, hospitals, prisons and public organisations.
Government action can change the habits of the private sector for the better by leading by example. From there, we can actively encourage more proactive supply chain platforms to improve access and availability of local food.
When I worked in shipping, the code of conduct was dictated by the Latin phrase “Dictum Meum Pactum” meaning “my word is my bond”. I see no reason why farmers should not expect the same working relationship as nearly every other industry in the country, and for these words to hold the same value and meaning in their business operation. Some supermarkets have already accepted they can do more, but it is clear from this worthwhile petition and indeed the debate in Westminster that there is a great deal further to go and that supermarkets need to be on the right side of this debate.