The Archbishop of York has launched an attack on UK consumers and supermarket industry, accusing both of paying too little for food and failing to recognise the contribution farmers make to national life.
Dr John Sentamu said the UK’s food supply chain was institutionally unfair, with farmers being punished with continually low prices for their produce and shoppers condoning this by buying food at a rate lower than the cost of production.
The Archbishop said the situation was so serious a new Fairtrade mark system should be introduced for UK goods to allow consumers to make a more informed choice.
Traditionally used for goods such as coffee imported from impoverished areas in Africa and South America, Fairtrade marks are used to signify that everyone involved in the supply chain was being paid at a fair rate.
He also warned some of the country’s most beloved landscapes, particularly the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales, would fall into ruin if farmers were not there to maintain them.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents Britain’s supermarkets, has rejected the criticism of stores, however, and said other sectors, such as manufacturers and the public sector were to blame for current problems.
Dr Sentamu’s comments come as a crisis engulfs the UK dairy farming sector. Fresh cuts in the price paid at the farmgate are set to come into force next Wednesday, which experts fear will force thousands out of business and create a reliance on imported milk.
“The economic climate has made it very difficult for many British farmers, with dairy producers in particular bearing the brunt of poor prices,” the Archbishop said. “As consumers, we have got to be prepared to pay a fairer price for what we are getting. I know everyone is feeling the pinch in their pocket during this long recession, but really how can we expect to pay less for our milk than say a bottle of mineral water or cola? How can we expect farmers to go on producing the best produce in the world when we are paying them below the going rate for their labours?
“Supermarkets have got to pay farmers the right price, particularly when it comes to milk. What they pay now is derisory. But as customers we should not collude with this.
“I would love to see a Fairtrade mark for British goods. It would be encouraging to look at the shelves of our supermarkets and know that the producer has been paid a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. What we have in the UK is often better quality farm produce and if we have to pay a bit more and give British farmers a higher price, then we should do that.”
In the past few days, supermarkets such as Asda, Morrisons and the Co-operative have agreed to improve their payments but pressure is still mounting on processors such as Arla, Robert Wiseman and Dairy Crest to pay farmers a rate that at least matches production costs. Arla was targeted again for protests this week, with hundreds of farmers demonstrating outside its Leeds dairy plant.
BRC director general, Stephen Robertson, told the Yorkshire Post that supermarkets are the wrong target. “Currently, 11 of the top 12 best paying milk contracts are paid by supermarkets. It’s in retailers’ own interests to invest in the farmers who are in their supply chain. Only half of the milk produced in Britain ends up as liquid milk in bottles and cartons and only part of that is sold in supermarkets.
“The questions the Archbishop should be asking are about the vast quantities of British milk used by manufacturers, caterers and the public sector. What price goes to the farmers who supply the milk that ends up in schools, hospitals, and prisons?”