British farmers took another slap to the face from Westminster this week when MPs penned an open letter to retailers asking them to better promote home-grown produce by creating ‘Buy British’ sections on their websites.
The letter, co-ordinated by Conservative MP Dr Luke Evans, has been supported by 110 MPs from across the political spectrum. It stated: “Our ask is simple, create a tab that collates produce from farmers.” It cited consumer choice, environmental benefits and support for farmers as reasons to make the change.
It’s a lovely sentiment, and one that would have been warmly received by growers had their production and livelihoods not been alarmingly reduced due to dimwitted government failings. To put it mildly, that is.
And the irony of the government’s posture was certainly not lost on farmers.
Lea Valley Growers said on Twitter that PR for this scheme was likely to go bad when British items were not available, or more likely substituted, in consumer baskets. It said the government should instead “consider a long-term plan that supports British food growers”.
Fresh categories like eggs and fruit suffered shortages
And LVG is right, because there is contraction across pretty much every sector due to lack of certainty, as NFU boss Minette Batters warned at an Efra committee meeting late last year.
Consumers have seen the reality of this on shelves over the past 12 months. Shortages have dominated fresh categories from eggs to fruit & veg lines, and there’ll be no let-up as the British weather has hampered this year’s harvests. Growers and farmers have rightly called for more support for many months, particularly when it comes to utilities.
Energy is a particularly touchy subject, with primary food production overlooked in the Energy and Trade Intensive Industries scheme announced in January designed to support high energy businesses.
“While we accept farming businesses can’t be insulated from long-term market realities, the government must recognise its current approach seriously undermines our ability to produce food,” said Batters earlier this year.
MPs are pushing the burden of responsibility on to retailers
The government has also failed to provide certainty on labour, with the Seasonal Worker scheme, a core lifeline for fruit & veg growers, still not guaranteed beyond 2024.
Meanwhile, some have called for the government to put laws in place to protect growers from retailers paying less than the cost of production. In many European countries it is illegal to do so. So why not here? This could not only convince growers to stay in the business, but it would enable them to invest in initiatives to future-proof their operations, like renewable energy.
The MPs’ letter is a microscopic nod of support for British farmers. Really, it’s pushing the burden of responsibility on to the retailers, but with a gimmicky marketing effort when government is the entity that needs to make significant changes.
This isn’t to say supermarkets couldn’t do more under their own steam. In May, UK cucumber growers were forced to bin crops as retailers prioritised cheaper, foreign imported produce over UK-grown. Data from British Apples & Pears has revealed many major supermarkets are underindexing on stocking UK fruit too.
Prioritisation is essential, but it is not going to happen with just a headline-grabbing PR stunt. Retailers need to prioritise purchasing UK product and paying appropriately for it. However, there would be more British food for consumers to buy had the government not undermined British production at every turn.