OPINION: Farmers Weekly calls for supply chain reform

Some of the changes that Farmers Weekly would like to see in the farming/food supply chains were outlined in the magazine’s editorial column in the 22 February issue.

Here we are again.

A look through this week’s News, Business and Letters pages will highlight some common themes which may seem painfully, depressingly and infuriatingly familiar. Defects in the supply chain are once again in sharp focus.

Dairy farmers are facing prices below the cost of production. Livestock producers are reeling in the wake of “horsegate”. Sugar beet growers are grappling with what many see as unsustainable returns. And all this after arable growers were hit by what some saw as opportunistic quality penalties on last year’s grain.

Global bank Rabobank recently dubbed the food and agriculture supply chain “flawed”, highlighting short-termism and a preoccupation with price spikes as factors.

Farmers have known this for many years. But time and time again, what are they faced with? A near-obsessive focus on making a quick buck. Farmers’ long-term approach and loyalty is, in turn, met with a fickle and unfaithful response, putting them at the mercy of bigger, more powerful trading “partners”.

Retail bosses, for example, talk about valuing and nurturing suppliers, but in practice their buyers are constantly chasing a better deal, regardless of the consequences.

Farmers, historically, have been good at relationships. Their banks, their vets, their consultants – they know how to make business arrangements work for both parties. They understand long-term successful commercial arrangements are founded on mutual benefit, trust and an appreciation of each other’s needs. They understand the meaning of words like commitment, preparedness to compromise and transparency.

Of course, buyers need to make a profit. However, it doesn’t take an economist to work out that unless farmers can make a margin they can’t keep going indefinitely. The current supply chain needs to change if it’s to be sustainable.

Perhaps the only silver lining to the dark cloud that is the horsemeat debacle is that it might bring retailer and processor practices into sharper focus.

We hear a lot of talk about the word partnership. If this truly is a partnership, it’s time farmers were treated more as equals and less as a disposable commodity.

Otherwise, still more will be driven out of business – a scenario in which there’ll be no winners. Not the farmers themselves, not rural communities, not the countryside, not consumers and not the processors and retailers who’ll then struggle to source supplies.

By that stage, we’ll have lost critical mass in home-produced food at a time when consumers are increasingly, thankfully, keen to put British on their plates.

Turning to imports then would mean a hike in food prices and a reduction in our security of supply.

It’s time to stop treating the most important link in the supply chain as the least important one.

Tim Relf
Community and Farmlife editor

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