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“Deafening silence” from the Big Six as petition passes 50,000 signatures

A campaign calling for fairer treatment of farmers by supermarkets and their suppliers has gained significant traction – yet organisers say there has been no response from ‘the Big Six’ so far.

Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organic, holding a box of fresh vegetables, sanding in a field.

Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organic, launched the campaign to call for fairer treatment for farmers. © James Walker

A petition urging the ‘Big Six’ supermarkets to adopt fairer practices, warning that the British farming industry is “on its knees” has received nearly 60,000 signatures.

It has gained support from a range of public figures including Dragon’s Den star Deborah Meaden, chef Rick Stein, musician Marcus Mumford and conservationist Ray Mears.

If the #GetFairAboutFarming petition hits 100,000 signatures it will have to be debated in parliament.

Launched by organic fruit and veg box company, Riverford, it calls for the Government to amend the Grocery Supply Code of Practice (GSCP) to require retailers, without exception, to:

  • Buy what they agreed to buy
  • Pay what they agreed to pay
  • Pay on time.

An open letter was sent to the CEOs of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, Aldi and Lidl just over two weeks ago asking them to treat farmers fairly – however, there has been a “deafening silence” from the Big Six.

The campaign comes after research by Riverford revealed 49% of fruit and veg farmers fear closure within 12 months – with supermarket buying behaviour a leading cause.

Natalie Bennett, the former Leader of the Green Party, also backed the campaign, saying in the House of Lords: “Farmers suffer major economic loss and a huge amount of food is wasted because supermarkets order food and then refuse to take it and to put it on the shelves and it rots in the fields.”

“Sixty metric tonnes of potatoes just…. wasted”

Arable farmer Joe* ceased selling to supermarkets five years ago, after spending £25,000 on growing an agreed crop, which the buyer then decided they didn’t want.

“And that was it,” he says. “Sixty metric tonnes of potatoes just … wasted.”

Joe, who produces mainly potatoes and onions on his organic mixed 300-hectare farm in the East of England, is determined to never grow for supermarkets again and sells to Riverford instead.

“They’ll squash you to keep the prices down,” he says. “You just don’t know how much to expect in terms of income, and at times you end up taking huge financial hits and wasting so much food. We need a fairer, shorter, and more transparent food chain.”

Silhouette of a farmer with a box of potatoes in a farm building.

Arable farmer Joe (not his real name) spent £25,000 growing potatoes for a supermarket, before being told they didn’t want them anymore. © Stu Everitt

Despite initially having a rosier relationship with supermarkets, in his third year, Joe planted crops in March and when August came the packer was happy with them and they were harvested – but the supermarket was then unsure if they would take them, so they went into store, Joe explains.

“With organic potatoes, you will get problems the longer you store them and I was getting nervous. Then the packer finally admitted that Tesco had de-listed them – they said a new person had joined their team and that potato variety has been wiped off the system.

“It turned out they were de-listed before they were even harvested and nobody had told me. It cost £25k to grow these and they just said ‘we’re not having them’ and that was that.”

He added: “In a ‘bad’ year – when there is plentiful supply – they will find 101 reasons why they don’t want the crop but then when they’re struggling they will have anything. It’s very uneven – and it’s all on their terms. If you have a big growing size and you’re important to them, you’re OK. But if you are small or medium-sized farm then you’re not and all the risk is on you.”

Joe believes supermarkets won’t change until consumers move away from them. “We need to bang the drum and get people to change the way they buy.”

An urgent issue

Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organic said the support for the campaign has been “very encouraging” – but none of the Big Six supermarkets has responded.

“From the backing of our open letter by industry experts, chefs, MPs, and fellow farmers, to the 50,000 members of the British public who have signed our petition, it is abundantly clear that this is an urgent issue which needs to be addressed.

“However, the silence from supermarkets is deafening. British agriculture is on its knees, with research showing that many farmers attribute their fear of closure to the behaviour of supermarkets. And yet not one of the ‘Big Six’ has responded to our calls for better business practices, to safeguard the future of fruit and veg farmers in this country.”

He concluded: “The supermarkets must act now. This marks a critical moment where we can take a stand against harmful practices, and create a better, fairer future for British food and farming.”

Sign the petition here: petition.parliament.uk/petitions/643216.

*Name changed to protect anonymity

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