Supermarket power tops concerns at Farmers Weekly Question Time

Supermarkets and supply chain unfairness were top of the agenda at the third Farmers Weekly Question time event at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

Farmers shaped the discussion by putting their searching questions to a panel of policymakers and influential figures, including Christine Tacon, chairwoman of Assured Food Standards for Red Tractor.

Questions covered a range of topics, including gene editing, Red Tractor assurance, food safety and net zero.

See also: Farmers shape the debate at Farmers Weekly Question Time

Read some of the best questions put to the panel below.

You can also watch the video below or listen to the podcast.

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Farmers Weekly’s Johann Tasker is hosting a series of regional debates on key agricultural topics.

Apply to be in the audience of our fourth and final Question Time, at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester, on Thursday 11 May.

How can we stop ever-decreasing margins for farmers while supermarkets always increase theirs?

Labour shadow farming minister Daniel Zeichner said there is a role for government to play in achieving a fairer balance in the supply chain, and more intervention is needed.

“We argued in the Agriculture Act for more powers for the groceries code adjudicator [GCA] and more resources to make it happen,” he said.

“I don’t blame the retailers – they do what they do as profit-seeking organisations, but if we want to be a country that produces our own food in the future, we’ve got to do something about that supply chain unfairness.”

But Christine Tacon, who prior to her current role as chairman of Red Tractor was the GCA, explained that legislation – both past and present – only allows the GCA to get involved in contracts between the big retailers and their suppliers. It does not allow any intervention on price.

Despite this, she suggested that retailers had a “massive shock” in recent months when they could not get hold of the food they wanted.

This means that power is now shifting back to suppliers. “It’s got to be about better long-term relationships – making sure that everyone in the food chain is making enough money to invest – rather than regulation.”

National Pig Association chairman Rob Mutimer told the audience that the pig farmers which have emerged the best from the past two years of squeezed margins are the ones who have the strongest relations with the end buyers.

Audience comment: Amy Russell, an agronomist from Timac Agro, said more needed to be done at government level.

“Suppliers are all struggling – be that in the pig industry or the veg industry, or even the grain market. Without anything from government level, supermarkets will continue to push their luck.”

Can we have cheap food and protect the environment?

Local Conservative MP Jerome Mayhew said that the whole ethos of the government’s post-Brexit policy is to pay “public money for public goods” while letting the free market determine the price of food.

But Mr Mutimer pointed to two particular challenges – the first that meeting environmental regulations could cost substantial amounts of money, and the second being that cheap food often means imported food, produced to lower standards than in the UK.

“If you do trade deals with countries that have low environmental regulation, you will find that the food on offer in supermarkets will be coming from other parts of the world.

“Consumers in all supermarkets may say they support environmental issues, but when they come out and you look in their baskets, you will find the cheapest food.”

Mr Zeichner agrees. “Yes, we can have cheap food – it just won’t be made here,” he said.

He believes there is no better example than the recent Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) deal the government has signed up to.

This has effectively “thrown the egg industry under the bus”, as imports will be coming in 10 years’ time from hens kept in cages.

Audience comment: Wendy Houston, vice-chairwoman of Fram Farmers in Suffolk, said it was important to get away from the obsession with cheap food and the “race to the bottom”.

“If we can produce reasonably priced, highly valued food with due regard to the environment and animal welfare, we will be much better off altogether.”

Could genetic modification (GM) and gene editing (GE) and be good for UK farming?

Simon Griffiths, who leads on wheat genetics at the John Innes Centre, said that both GE and GM could deliver benefits, but the overriding factor is whether the British people are ready for it.

Regardless, Dr Griffiths welcomes the recent royal assent given to the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act.

“Even if we never see precision-bred crops on UK soil as a farm crop, it is still going to accelerate discoveries in biology that allows us to deliver benefits to breeding more quickly.”

Mr Mayhew said it was crucial to help consumers understand the difference between GM and GE – the first of which involves introducing new genes, and the second simply speeds up natural genetic processes.

“It would be a tragedy if the two got conflated in the public mind and thought of as the same thing,” he said, pointing out that the public had already made up their minds against GM.

Mr Zeichner said that, even though Labour is broadly in favour of GE, the debate is actually more nuanced, and GE is not always as precise as some liked to believe. He also points to potential trade issues, as other countries had different interpretations.

“The key is to get equivalence with other countries and also get consent all the way up the supply chain,” he said.

The biggest danger is if the public get “spooked” by GE, which is why there is reason to tread very cautiously with gene-edited animals.

Audience comment: Former UKIP MEP and local farmer Stuart Agnew condemned the hypocrisy of the debate on GM, pointing out that the entire UK livestock sector relied on imported GM soya beans.

“The public are eating large quantities of GM food and for them to say they won’t accept it is utter nonsense.”

Is it time to dump Red Tractor on the scrap heap?

Not surprisingly, Ms Tacon put up a strong defence of the Red Tractor scheme, pointing out that it was set up in 2000 in the wake of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy and salmonella food scares, to bring all assurance schemes under one roof and reassure consumers their food is safe.

The impact has been to raise public trust in food and the scheme has now been adopted by every food retailer and most food service companies.

“All these retailers and food service companies are not doing their own audits because they are relying on Red Tractor to do it,” she said.

“So it is one audit that gives you maximum access to every single market,” Ms Tacon said, adding that government agencies such as the Food Standards Agency were far less likely to carry out their separate audits on Red Tractor farms.

Not everyone sees it that way. While Mr Mutimer acknowledged that having Red Tractor assurance has helped UK pig producers enjoy a small price premium over Continental pig farmers during the recent crisis, he disagreed that it results in fewer audits.

“In the pig sector, we are audited by Red Tractor, the RSPCA, and every supermarket has their own auditing system using Red Tractor as the baseline which they add onto, creating a huge amount of bureaucracy.”

Multiple “empire builders” have also made Red Tractor far more complex than when it first started, with additional requirements pushed down by the supermarkets at zero cost to them.

Mr Mayhew said the concept of Red Tractor is the right one, supporting both consumers and producers, while Mr Zeichner believes it would be foolish to dump it.

“I quite understand the frustration people feel with it, but if it went, it would be replaced by another set of bureaucracy.”

Audience comment: Ian Spinks, a Norfolk beef farmer, was sceptical, suggesting a single annual visit did not really prove what was going on throughout the rest of the year.

“I also wonder sometimes if the work is really being done for the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency or the supermarkets, yet the farmer still has to pay for it.”

Is food safety a concern?

Mr Zeichner said people should certainly be worried and the recent Farmers Weekly investigation into malpractice in the meat sector shows why.

“The Food Standards Agency now has a much bigger job to do than before, but I’m not sure they’ve been given enough resources to do that,” he said.

He added that the checking in Dover on imports is only intelligence-led, while imports of illegal meat in white vans passing unchecked through the port puts the UK at risk.

Mr Mutimer went further, describing the imports of illegal meat through Dover as an “absolute disgrace”.

“The Scots did some checks and were finding two or three vans a day coming through their ports carrying illegal meat,” he said. “We’re just leaving ourselves open to foot-and-mouth or African swine fever, which is rife throughout Europe.”

However, Mr Mayhew believes the situation will improve, with the government having recently launched its draft Border Target Operating Model, which will apply the most inspections to product coming from areas with highest risk.

What are the panel’s reflections on food security and who will policy develop?

According to Dr Griffiths, food security and self-sufficiency are not being taken seriously enough. “More than 50% of the world’s wheat is produced by just five countries and we saw what happened when just one of those countries – Ukraine – came under such pressure,” he said.

“India and China are the biggest wheat producers in the world, but they are not exporting because they eat it all.

“And all the time, climate change is bringing in new diseases, and high temperature and drought are putting pressure on those areas where our wheat is imported from. You can’t overstate the importance of making sure our supply of staples is secure.”

Mr Zeichner agreed that food security should be given higher priority. “Our goal is to produce more here, and it’s sensible to have shorter supply chains when the world is so precarious,” he said.

Closely linked to food security is energy security, added Ms Tacon, pointing out that the UK has lost a lot of glasshouse and poultry production in the past few months due to the high cost of energy and the exclusion of farmers from energy subsidy schemes.

How can agri-food help the UK reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050?

The first priority is to be able to measure each farmer’s carbon footprint, said Ms Tacon, but few have even thought about this. “We also have a plethora of different carbon calculation tools that all give completely different answers.”

More financial help should be given to encourage farmers to do their carbon calculations, as is available in Scotland, she added. Bord Bia in Ireland already includes carbon measurement within its farm assurance standards.

But she opposed the idea of farmland being used to help other sectors offset their own emissions and biodiversity losses.

“It really worries me that we always talk about net zero as if nothing else matters. Biodiversity matters. Food security matters. They’re all important and we can’t look at anything in isolation.

Mr Mutimer said finding alternatives to soya and maintaining high animal health on pig farms will result in greater food conversion efficiency and so help the move towards net zero.

But the AHDB needs to provide better data and the government should provide capital grants to help people move in the right direction.

Changing farming practices is also important, and Dr Griffiths said it is encouraging that farmers are thirsty to innovate and take on these challenges.

“Our crops can be planted to use less nitrogen, we can increase soil carbon, we can increase biodiversity and that can have beneficial effects on greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

The panel

Simon Griffiths, group leader of Designing Future Wheat, Genes in Environment at John Innes Centre

Simon Griffiths studies height and flowering time in bread wheat, and the genes that control these traits to influence yield.

His research involves large-scale screening of wheat lines, using QTL mapping.

The study aims to provide application ideas for the genetic architecture of wheat, to design new varieties for sustainable food security.

Jerome Mayhew, MP for Broadland, Norfolk

Since entering parliament, former barrister Jerome Mayhew has been elected on to the Environmental Audit Select Committee.

In recent years, he worked in his constituency as director of an agricultural company, learning about farming and the opportunities that green energy brings to the region.

Prior to this, he helped build outdoor adventure Go Ape! into a successful tourism business.

Christine Tacon, chairwoman of Assured Food Standards for Red Tractor

Former groceries code adjudicator, Christine Tacon has decades of experience as a leader and advocate for the British food and farming industry.

She has an extensive background in change management, regulation and the food chain.

She is also chairwoman of the BBC Rural Affairs Committee and management training scheme MDS for the food and fresh produce industry.

Daniel Zeichner, shadow Defra secretary and MP for Cambridge

Daniel Zeichner has been serving on the Labour frontbench as shadow minister for farming, food, fisheries and rural affairs for the past three years.

He also chairs a number of all-party parliamentary groups. After gaining a history degree from the University of Cambridge, he ran a small nursery with his partner in rural Norfolk.

He has also served as shadow transport minister.

Rob Mutimer, chairman of the National Pig Association

Outdoor pig farmer Rob Mutimer’s family farm in Norfolk has 700 outdoor sows. The progeny are finished in four straw-based finishing farms locally.

The farm has 100 acres of arable land contract-farmed by his brother, and 150 ewes lambed by his daughters.

He is an AHDB pork board member. His farm and butchery businesses are potentially affected by future trading deals.