Supermarkets must do more to help a UK farming industry in crisis, according to a new report launched at the Royal Show by Stuart Hampson, president of the Royal Agricultural Society and chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, which owns Waitrose.
“I think we are at a tipping point and ignoring it will have devastating consequences,” he said.
“Our grandchildren will say what the hell did we think we were doing.
Once lost, a viable sector cannot be rebuilt.”
Sir Stuart noted that farming’s share of the nation’s £78bn food basket had dropped by almost a quarter since 1988.
Self-sufficiency was also falling.
To help address the problem, Sir Stuart said retailers needed to accept their crucial role in conveying information about farming and the provenance of the products they sold.
Crucially, they should demonstrate that “Fair trade” applied to UK farmers just as much as it did to third-world countries.
He said retailers were not solely to blame for the problems facing agriculture.
But he admitted that the research commissioned for his report, Differentiation – A Sustainable Future for UK Agriculture, did show that some consumers felt larger supermarkets were creating an obsession with prices by adopting marketing slogans like “Every little helps”.
Part of the problem, said Sir Stuart, was that there was a “critical disconnect” between what shoppers said they believed in and how they actually spent their money.
“While 86% of consumers believe that Britain should be a farming nation, only 18% actively buy British.”
Many also felt that their individual buying behaviour would not make a difference, while others had doubts that any price differentials were being passed back to farmers by supermarkets.
Moving away from “commoditisation”, where food was mass produced to maximise efficiency and cost savings, could be the real key to improving the fortunes of farmers, said Sir Stuart.