Food and drink is the UK’s largest remaining manufacturing sector – bigger than the car and aerospace industries combined – and contributes over £28bn a year to the economy; with Europe as its most significant export market. Across the whole chain including farming, food accounts for over 13% of national employment.
Felicity Lawrence is an award-winning journalist and editor – noted for her reporting on the horsemeat scandal and processed foods. – who has written on food-related issues for over twenty years.
“”Across sectors, the past 50 years has seen a dramatic decline in the farmer’s share of the money as the buying power of supermarkets and processors has become more and more concentrated, their tendency to oligopoly largely untouched by competition authorities. These are dysfunctional markets.
With climate change and population growth threatening food security globally, keeping our farmers in business matters. They cannot maintain our treasured landscapes if they cannot make money. We need an imaginative new system of subsidy that gives public money to farmers for public goods, or we risk driving them off the land in droves”.
Free of EU competition rules, all sorts of active state interventions that would change our food system for the better, Felicity points out that Michael Gove could take several beneficial steps.
- use the powerful lever of government procurement for schools, hospitals, the military and prisons to favour healthy British food;
- adopt a joined-up policy and target subsidies to increase production of the sort we need for health – more fruit and vegetables, less sugar and intensive meat production;
- ensure that new trade deals are built on maintaining welfare and environmental standards, rather than lowering them to compete in new markets;
- insist that continued access to foreign labour is tied to the industry, improving what are often appalling working conditions and pay so British workers are drawn back to jobs they now shun
- and improve what are often appalling working conditions and pay so British workers are drawn back to jobs they now shun.
A working model
Julie Brown, director of Growing Communities’ director, a trading and wholesaling operation, says her mission is to feed urban communities locally in a way that is fair and sustainable in the face of corporate dominance and climate change.
She starts from the position that the price she gives her suppliers must cover their cost of production and enable them and their staff to earn a reasonable living. So she pays them 60p per kilo for delivered goods.
Her supply chain is short and direct, keeping other costs to a minimum. She also believes her customers should know where the money goes and explains that most of her markup goes into wages.
Wages and pay ratio
A team of packers for this community-led organic box scheme in Hackney, London
Her packers (above in Hackney, London) are paid the London living wage, the amount the Resolution Foundation calculates is required to cover the real cost of living and in good years, a share of the profits in bonuses.
One of her organisation’s governing principles is that the pay ratio between top and bottom should be no more than 2:1, so Brown takes a salary of £30,000 a year.
Good working conditions
Unlike many agency workers supplied to industrial farms to harvest and pack, the workers on Ripple Farm, run by the Mackey family, which supplies Growing Communities, receive holiday pay, sick pay and good protective clothing to keep them warm and dry.
All this sounds like common sense, but in conventional production, the average price for potatoes at the farm gate has been just 11p per kilo recently (less than a fifth of what Brown pays). A large-scale supplier to supermarkets or manufacturing will typically get only this small fraction of the retail price of around £1 per kilo that we pay in the shops, with opaque markups along the way for complex transport and logistics systems, processors’ costs, retail margins and executive pay.
Large-scale producers say they have to bring in migrants because local people do not want these jobs, especially where they are seasonal, and small wonder. Finding good staff is not easy but if there is good pay and conditions, jobs are filled by local recruits.
Julie cites the example of the Mackeys’ farming business: arranged so that there is year-round employment five days a week, and a hard stint outdoors in the morning balanced by a less arduous indoor job in packing and admin in the afternoon. The work is tough and physically demanding, as agricultural work has always been, but it is not allowed to be crippling.
Felicity Lawrence advocates farmers having reliable markets that they can plan for and control, remaining, in other words, outside the system of supermarket and big manufacturing just-in-time delivery that now accounts for the vast majority of UK production.