UK’s cheap food policy needs strategic rethink, MPs told

A strategic rethink is needed about cheap food policy which is driving British food producers out and lowering national self-sufficiency levels, MPs have been told.

Ali Capper, the chairwoman of British Apples and Pears, told the Environment and Rural Affairs (Efra) select committee that government policy around cheap food was promoting poor buyer behaviour and increasing imports.

She said a “strategic change” was required and the country “must start championing” local food production while accepting that it was not the cheapest option for consumers.

See also: Ditching of English horticulture strategy ‘beggars belief’

Ms Capper, who grows hops and apples on her Worcestershire farm, said apple growers had suffered a 30% increase in their costs of production, mainly labour and energy, yet they had received only an 8% average payment uplift from retailers.

“Yet, despite only that 8% [price increase], we are seeing price rises among the big retailers. Lidl’s Oakland red apples – that’s a very big line – went up by 50% in a two-year period,” she told MPs.

“Morrisons’ British apples six pack went up by 39% in a two-year period. Tesco increased the price of its Rosedene Farms Gala apples by 36% in that same two-year period. So, there’s an inequity in the margin share.”

Over-reliance on imports

Ms Capper said climate change maps show the UK was a good area to invest in fruit and veg production, whereas areas such as southern Spain and northern Africa “will not be able to grow food in 30 or 50 years’ time”.

“Why are we not strategically saying: right, we have got something really special here. Let’s invest in it. Let’s put a strategy in place that says we’re going to grow food production. Let’s be brave. Why don’t we say by 30 or 40%?”

Guy Watson-Singh, founder of Riverford Organic Farmers, has launched a petition for supermarkets to better support British farmers, which has attracted more than 100,000 signatures and will be debated in parliament on 22 January.

He told the committee how primary producers’ share of profits had fallen sharply since he supplied supermarkets in the 1980s, from about 38p in the retail pound to about 25p today.

Falling prices from retailers led him to stop supplying supermarkets for the past 20 years, instead setting up his own organic veg box business.

“Price is one thing which I think is purely a result of an imbalance of power,” Mr Watson-Singh told MPs.

“But confidence in the future of the industry is sorely lacking. Confidence in British farming has taken a real knock over the past six years.

“I also farm in France where I see my neighbours putting out huge greenhouses in the Loire Valley and being able to produce salads all winter in a climate not that dissimilar from ours, certainly in Kent, for instance.

“It’s just not happening in the UK. We have had one huge greenhouse built in Thanet, but mostly the horticulture industry has been decimated.”

Lack of confidence

Mr Watson-Singh said there was no investment in the horticulture industry, which is why food self-sufficiency was declining.

“It’s a combination of price and [lack of] confidence, and I think we leave ourselves in a very vulnerable position as a result.”

The cross-party Efra committee is exploring the balance of power between food producers, manufacturers and retailers, especially in regard to price setting.

The committee, chaired by Sir Robert Goodwill, held its second evidence-gathering session on Tuesday 9 January.

Six-point plan towards fairness in the supply chain

During the Efra hearing, Ali Capper suggested a six-point plan to help shift the imbalance of power in the supply chain and promote fairness for food producers:

  1. Efra comittee chairman Sir Robert Goodwill asked to write to the chief executive of every major UK retailer, to call for a recognition of farm input inflation and fair pricing.
  2. Government needs to impose the fair dealing clause, which is available in the Agriculture Act, on retailers. Contract obligations specifically around pricing mechanisms are “imperative”.
  3. The removal of a cap on seasonal workers allowed to travel to the UK to work in the horticultural sector.
  4. Include commercial horticulture in the government’s Energy and Trade Intensive Industries scheme now, to give food producers protection against energy price volatility.
  5. Apply a carbon border adjustment and introduce carbon price for food imports at the border.
  6. Redesign Defra’s Environmental Land Management scheme so that it “works with, not instead of, food production”.
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