Bishop's plea for fair deal for farmers

Church leaders in Norfolk last night demanded that supermarkets give farmers a fairer deal amid claims that two-for-one promotions on the store shelves were piling misery on British agriculture.

Church leaders in Norfolk last night demanded that supermarkets give farmers a fairer deal amid claims that two-for-one promotions on the store shelves were piling misery on British agriculture.

As the Church of England published its report on the effect of the buying power of major food retailers on farming, the Bishop of Norwich called on supermarkets to offer British farmers the same fair trade deals as offered abroad.

“We're very keen on fair trade in relation to the rest of the world, we've actually got to engage in fair trade with agriculture in this country,” the Rt Rev Graham James said.

The Church's Fair Trade Begins at Home report accused major food retailers of selling cheap food at the expense of farmers.

Launching the report, the Rt Rev Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter and chairman of the rural strategy group of the Church's Mission and Public Affairs Division, said although the benefits of the supermarkets were widely recognised, he believed the costs and the risks of food production were not being shared equally.

“The business practices of the major food retailers have placed considerable stress on the farming community,” he said.

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“Farmers seem to be unwilling to complain or to expose these practices for fear that their produce may be boycotted by the major retailers. It is clear that the supermarkets' code of practice is not working.”

Bishop Michael reported there had been a 53pc reduction in dairy herds since 1995 and seven farmers quit milk production every week.

“The mark-up of milk for the supermarket 20 years ago was around 3pc, it is now 30pc,” he added.

The study, from the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group, (EIAG), spoke to 50 farmers in most types of agricultural production.

It said there were a number of instances of farmers refusing to meet them because they feared damaging their future relationship with the supermarkets.

Those who did speak to the study detailed experiences of “invisible and pernicious” practices that the consumer was largely unaware of but had been accepted by farmers as a “fait accompli” as part of the price of doing business, the report claimed.

Many farmers pay for supermarkets own promotions, it said.

Joint author of the report, Neville White, said a vegetable farmer was paid £7 a tonne - significantly less than the cost of production - instead of £14 when a supermarket launched a special offer.

Retired farmer George Frost, who is Methodist agricultural chaplain for Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, said that a shopper could not find any British bacon because it was all Danish. “That's ridiculous in a rural situation like East Anglia where so much is bacon is produced,” said Mr Frost, who ran a 500-acre farm with his brother at Fressingfield, near Diss, with pigs and laying hens and 18,000 free range poultry.

The report also found that some buyers could telephone a farmer just as a lorry was leaving for abattoir to reduce an order.

The abattoir would take on the full delivery, leaving the supermarket to pay for only what it required.

The Rev Dr Lorna Allies, rural adviser to the Norwich diocese and the Methodist church, said there are continuing difficulties.

“Things look good because of the prices of wheat and cereals and so on but if you're a livestock farmer, it is not good at all, it is looking absolutely desperate,” she added.

Commenting on the report, an Asda spokesman said: “Treating suppliers fairly while ensuring we always get the best deal for our customers is at the heart of how we do business.

“Respect for the individual is also one of our core values, and applies to both how our people treat each other and the suppliers they work with each day.”

A spokeswoman for supermarket chain Morrisons said: “We are keen supporters of

regional producers and have many small and local suppliers.

“We have responded to the recent plight of sheep and pig farmers and are supporting the industry through this difficult time.”

An action plan to boost sales of organic food and drink will be launched today in Cambridge.

The Soil Association will urge key decision-makers at the East of England Regional Development Agency's meeting at Histon to give more support for organic food and farming because it will deliver significant economic opportunities and environmental benefits to the region.

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