Long food supply chains and markets created over the past few decades have provided cheap food – at a high social cost

A summary of good thinking from Scottish MEP Alyn Smith, SNP member of the EP’s Greens/European Free Alliance Group.

alyn smith mepConcentrated buying power from processors and retailers has played a large role in creating the situation where dairy farmers and pork farmers can’t get a price high enough to cover their production costs, or where hill farmers need to rely on EU subsidy in order to economically survive.

Sharp business practices from purchasers, such as listing fees or retrospective revision of contracts are well known in the farming sector.

Intense competition may produce lower prices but also can lead to cut corners: witness the public and animal health scandals around BSE, foot-and-mouth, or ecoli.

Deregulation didn’t work in the financial sector and it isn’t working in the food sector

Governments have systematically cut back on financial and technical support for regulators and inspections. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency has had to reduce its number of inspectors by 800 and the budgets of some local government sampling units have been slashed by 70%.

Long supply chains

Food supply chains in Europe are extraordinarily long and complex, involving multiple food business entities and opaque corporate structural engineering, which increases the difficulty for adequate inspection and regulation, and opens the door for fraud and criminal activity. It makes it difficult to work out who is responsible for what, and who’s to blame when things go wrong – see the lurid story in the Observer.

Pollution & waste

Alyn Smith continues that, disregarding illegal behaviour, “given the concerns of carbon emissions and climate change, it is bizarre that we import (for instance) water, when we produce bucket loads of the stuff, apples from South Africa or garlic from Argentina”.

He adds that a by-product of our system is that about 90 million tonnes of agricultural produce is wasted annually in Europe and about a third of the food for human consumption is wasted globally. This happens at many points along the food supply chain, from harvesting losses to supermarket quality controls and – after sale – through poor purchasing decisions or food management by some consumers who only consider the sticker price.

His question: what kind of a world is it when:

  • those who till the soil to fill our dinner-plates can barely make enough to survive for another planting season,
  • milk and alcohol can retail at a lower price in the supermarkets than water,
  • disgusting slop can be served up to our children and our hospital patients on the grounds of “cost competitiveness”,
  • the number of malnourished people is roughly equivalent to the number of obese people
  • and when the fanatic search for lower prices amidst intense competition leads to the entry of the Mafia into our food chain?

We need nothing less than a food revolution – Alyn Smith:

He believes that this can be achieved through buying local and notes anecdotal evidence that sales at local butchers are up 20-25%:

“Short supply chains, farmers markets and quality labels cut out the middle men, enabling direct purchase by consumers and a guarantee for transparency and quality: it boosts the local economy as well, protects diversity in the retail sector and helps keep our farmers on the land. The Scottish Government have already invested £200,000 in farmers markets, and promoted education about healthy eating in schools.

”I’ve been pushing for mandatory country of origin labelling for many years through the EU food labelling legislation, which will encourage our consumers to buy local . . .

“ The European Parliament’s AGRI Committee have also voted for Rural Development funding for farm certification schemes, which I think is the best way for farmers to win confidence among consumers through voluntarily taking external controls and verification.

A call for fair trade in Britain

“And we need to push harder for reforms to the EU’s competition rules, to ensure farmers can get the bargaining power they need for a fair price, and reduce the power of supermarkets to crush their smaller brethren”.

”Let’s seize the opportunity, not just to fix the immediate problems of fraud in food labelling and adequate inspections and controls, but to fix our food chain to make it fairer for producers and consumers alike”.

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