MP accuses the Big Six of acting like “a cartel”

Farmers gathered outside parliament as MPs debated an overhaul of the Grocery Supply Code of Practice, after over 100,000 people signed the #GetFairAboutFarming petition.

Forty-nine faceless scarecrows were placed outside parliament, representing the anonymity of farmers, and the 49% of fruit and veg farmers who believe they will be out of business in 12 months. Photo credit: David Parry/PA Wire

A debate in parliament this week (22nd January) saw one MP compare the ‘Big Six’ supermarkets and their suppliers to a “cartel” in the way they treat farmers.

Forty-nine scarecrows were lined up outside parliament on the morning of the debate to protest against the unfair treatment of farmers. 

The scarecrows, a familiar symbol of the British farming landscape, were faceless to represent the anonymity of the farmers behind the statistics – most of whom are too afraid to speak out against supermarkets for fear of reprisals.

The debate came after the #GetFairAboutFarming campaign hit 112,000 signatures, calling for fairer treatment of farmers and changes to the law to better protect them.

It was launched by organic fruit and veg box company Riverford in September. The proposed amendments included requiring retailers to buy what they agreed to buy, pay what they agreed to pay, and pay on time, without exception. 

“The Department for the Extinction of Farmers”

Current government policies in place to protect farmers from supermarket buying behaviour fail to provide adequate support for farmers and are rarely enforced, says Riverford founder Guy Singh-Watson. 

Richard Foord (CORR), Lib Dem MP for Tiverton and Honiton, said during the debate: “If we want to create thriving communities, we’ve got to ensure that our farmers get a fair price for their produce and I’m afraid that it’s often not the case, with many struggling against the big supermarkets.

“Some of these supermarkets are operating a little bit like a cartel. I’m not alleging that there is a cartel but they are operating in some ways like a cartel. To give you an example… from December, Aldi came out just before Christmas and said it was going to sell six vegetables for 15 pence. So you could buy, for example, a bag of carrots for 15p.

“This is way below the cost of production. That would be one thing, but then it was copied by another six supermarkets that have done exactly the same thing.”

Mr Foord also outlined how one farmer in his constituency referred to Defra as “The Department for the Extinction of Farmers”.

Threat to livelihoods

Riverford founder Guy Singh-Watson said he felt the comment was reflective of the feelings of farmers across the industry, after research from the organic veg box company found that 49% of fruit and vegetable farmers said it is likely they will go out of business in the next 12 months. 

Many blamed supermarkets and their buyers as a leading threat to their livelihoods, with a further 69% saying tougher regulations are needed to redress the imbalance of power. 

Following the debate at 4.30pm on Monday, Mr Singh-Watson said: “The Government needs to do more to ensure the future of British farming and protect against the too often unfair and abusive behaviour of supermarkets and their suppliers. Current government policies in place to protect farmers currently fall woefully short, and supermarkets are able to exploit our hard-working farmers to prop up their profits. 

“Defra must face up to the alarming fact that 49% of fruit and veg farmers are on the brink and fear going out of business in the next 12 months. They cannot stand by and let our proud British farming heritage die out – or they risk turning the farmer’s description of Defra into a damning reality.”

Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford, started the Get Fair About Farming campaign. Photo credit: Stu Everitt

Bottom of the list

Riverford’s research also revealed over half (54%) of horticultural farmers believe farming sits at the bottom of the Government’s list of priorities. This is the major concern for British farmers, coming above fears around future government support (28%) and crops failing due to weather extremes (29%).

Sarah Dyke, Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome, said: “We need to get fair about farming because farmers are often disenfranchised in the agri-food supply chain. It requires a concerted effort to tackle the systemic issues, promote equitable relationships and ensure a sustainable and fair system so British farmers can produce high quality food for our tables.”

She added: “[Farmers] are also the custodians of our natural environment. We must therefore ensure that they get a fair deal for the work that they do and the food that they supply. And the public agree – polling shows that 88% of the public think that’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 to be expensive. Just a bigger proportion needs to go back to the farmer.”

Some way to go

Mark Spencer, the minister for food, farming and fisheries, said: “The government wants all farmers to receive a fair price for their products and we are committed to tackling those contractual unfairnesses that we have seen in the agri-food supply chain. We do recognise that there are some poor practices affecting producers across several agricultural sectors and we’re taking action to address these. But we do not believe that amending the Groceries Code is the most appropriate way to do that.”

In response to the Minister’s comments, Mr 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.”

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