Normally a new year is a chance to take stock and look ahead to the future. Regular readers will be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu when they realise that once again the leading stories in this magazine relate to poor profitability, labour shortages and consequent falls in production.
A new report from Sustain, the alliance of food, health, and environmental bodies, confirms what growers already know, that vegetables and fresh produce are often used as a loss leader by multiple retailers, and that growers often have to supply products for less than their cost of production. It is now wonder that faced with increasing costs and greater risks, more and more growers are simply packing up.
Since the Second World War farmers and growers around the world have been so successful at producing cheap and plentiful food that consumers and politicians genuinely seem to think it appears ready-packaged in the supermarket. Even the current hiatus around eggs, and the issues of fresh produce supply during the Covid pandemic don’t seem to have significantly shaken this assumption.
The dogma is usually that we can simply import the food we need from abroad, but the agricultural sectors in countries as far afield as South America, Oceania and Europe are undergoing massive uncertainty. Even the Netherlands, the globe’s market garden, is threatening to close 3,000 farms, leading its farmers to revolt against the government. With issues such as climate, labour and rising costs of production affecting farmers globally, anyone who is relying on imports to feed any country in the world is taking a very risky gamble.
The latest blow to UK food production from the current government comes with plans to do away with the Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) and give its remit to the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA). While the GCA is not perfect, there is no doubt it has played an important role for growers and suppliers, and to do away with it during current market conditions would be disastrous. Still, this government has a history of disastrous policies when it comes to farming, from unfair and one-sided trade deals, to limiting labour so that food rots in the fields and adding unnecessary bureaucracy to crop protection policies.
Thank heaven then for the comments of Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5 who said food supply should be integral to the government’s definition of national security. Speaking at the NFU’s annual Henry Plumb lecture she said, “We need to acknowledge that we must produce as much of our food as possible, with due regard to sustainability, and be able to export what we can.”
Her comments come as the NFU continues to receive good press coverage about the issues facing farmers and growers and the very real risks that the UK is sleepwalking into a food supply crisis. Unfortunately, the only people who still don’t seem to be listening are the government. Environment Secretary responded to the NFU’s call for ‘urgent action’ by saying, “I’m not going to be particularly critical of supermarkets.” If the government is waiting for a crisis before it intervenes, it will find it has left it too late.
The January issue also contains articles on
- Onion and carrot conference
- INNO-VEG project
- Bejo international open day
- Sakata international open day
- Pumpkin oil
To read these and more from “The Vegetable Farmer” subscribe today – find out more here.