Cheap food policy must drive reality check

It’s often said that we should get out and about to see what’s happening in other parts of the world to make you realise what’s important at home writes NFU Scotland President Martin Kennedy.

After returning from another Copa - Cogeca (European farming unions and co-ops ) meeting in Brussels recently, it’s absolutely clear that as the only industry who has the ability to provide the most important energy source of all, we are all in the same boat when it comes to the challenges we face.

Listening to the EU farming commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski highlight again the demise of the smaller traditional farms across Europe, the figures say it all. 

Over a ten-year period, from 2010 to 2020, an average of more than 800 European farming businesses have been lost every day.

Let’s reflect on that figure - 800 every single day for ten years. 

This equates to almost 3 million separate farming business across Europe. Given the drop is from 12 million to 9 million that’s a 25% decline. Of course, the vast majority of land hasn’t disappeared or left agriculture, it’s just become amalgamated within bigger businesses. 

So why has this happened? It’s a simple case of survival, the reality is because (and I know this is difficult for some to swallow), on average food has become so cheap relevant to our incomes that the margins are no longer big enough to allow smaller businesses to survive without external income. 

We should be asking the question, who’s fault is the decline in number of the smaller traditional farm units? 

Well, my view is it’s a combination of governments and retailers that have driven this constant need to expand and get bigger to survive.

When I left college in the eighties, I worked on a farm in the north east for two consecutive harvests. It was a 500-acre arable farm that also finished a puckle cattle. There was a farm manager there full time that also required seasonal help which I was part of. The surrounding area was similar with smaller individual family units all supporting the local and wider economy. Sadly, I visited this farm recently when I was in the area to see what it was like and my heart sank, the sheds were falling down, the gutters overgrown and it looked completely deserted and unloved. What was once a fantastic self-contained unit now looked like it was simply neglected with ditches overflowing hedges out of control, and not a soul in site. Chances are it’s now farmed only from afar with no time for attention to detail, a sad reflection of what our industry has been driven to. 

So why do I put this blame solely at the feet of governments and retailers. First of all, governments have a shocking record of putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to public procurement.  They keep telling us they want to support local but the reality is price dictates where products are sourced. 

The classic is chicken in our schools. We are told we can’t source Scottish chicken, but there is only one reason for this and one alone.  If the correct and fair price was paid then availability of product would be there in abundance. Look what happened with eggs. It wasn’t avian flu that was the main player in the egg shortage, it was retailer returns, i.e. farmers couldn’t afford to produce them so stopped restocking. 

We also have a UK government that wants to blame everyone except themselves for the current and impending food shortages. Sadly we still have some elected representatives in Westminster who think it’s better to import than to support our own economy. Well we did that with power and look at the howk that got us into. 

Lessons must be learnt, or the ramifications of this type of thinking on food production will bring unimaginable hardship to many. 

Future policy in agriculture is never off the agenda, and there is a chance before time runs out to get this addressed and rethink where priorities should lie. 

The people who are currently criticising where agriculture is right now are often the very people who are failing to appreciate all the benefits our industry provides including those much wider than just food production. Our industry has shaped our environment for hundreds of years.

I was absolutely delighted lasty week, whilst feeding sheep to take a photo of between 25 and 30 lapwings returning to their favourite bit of the farm. This only happens because this piece of rough ground is well grazed and predators are under control, something that sone of our leaders are trying to stop through ignorance and lack of understanding. 

Equally to blame in the lack of profitable farms, large and small, is this persistent push to have the cheapest on the shelf. 

Do retailers really understand what it feels like to have our hard-won produce simply talked about on countless adverts where it’s ‘price matched to another supermarket’? The disrespect this shows to our industry is horrendous. Then they have the audacity to say their products are environmentally friendly or carbon positive, put over in a manner that makes it look like it’s them that’s went to all the effort rather than recognising what had been delivered at farm level.

When was the last time a retailer took a share of the risk? How many retailers have suffered an avian flu outbreak; how many retailers have suffered because of a bad harvest due to weather; how many retailers have had the heartache of a dead calf and borne the loss of the keep of that cow for a whole year? The answer is none. 

There now must be a reset in priorities. Farmers will not go on strike, they will simply reduce production. We are seeing this already. We warned about this for years and now it’s a reality.

Gone also are the days when we can simply import our way out of this.  And for information, I notice the shops aren’t bare in Europe.  That’s because in the UK we pay the lowest in Europe for our food relevant to our income. Worse still we pay the third lowest in the world - a shocking statistic considering the standards we are proud to maintain. 

If reality kicks in and we once again respect our most important energy source for all it delivers, then we will continue to not only feed ourselves but do so in a sustainable manner that takes care of our environment and supports our own economy. 

This must be better than seeing our economy and environment suffer due to greed and a relentless ethos of a cheap food policy that supports other less caring economies. 

Regardless, farmers and crofters will survive as there is no other industry so resilient.  The country however might not!

Author: Martin Kennedy

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Stephen Withers

401 days ago

It's a pity we can't get your comments on the front of every newspaper Martin!
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About The Author

Martin Kennedy

Martin is a tenant farmer in Aberfeldy, Highland Perthshire and farms with his wife Jane and three daughters. They have 600 ewes and 60 cows on the farm rising from 800ft to 2,500ft. Martin served two years as Highland Perthshire Branch chair, before representing East Central region on the LFA committee in 2009. Martin went on to be Vice-Chair before chairing the committee for three years. He was elected Vice-President in 2017 and elected as President in 2021.

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