Farmers need a complete Treasury review of Britain’s “unique” and “unsustainable” food trading system within the next 12 months, the NFU president, Minette Batters, has said.
Citing the abortive merger between Asda and Sainsbury’s as an example of the supermarket system working against farmers’ interests, Ms Batters said the Government had allowed a “totally unique retailer monopoly to exist”, and that reform could not be left to Defra alone.
She told delegates at a Future Farmers seminar at the Great Yorkshire Show: “There has got to be a complete review of the competition framework. It has to be done by the Treasury, it has to be serious and it has to be done in 12 months.”
She added: “We are selling milk and strawberries for the same price as 25 years ago. That is not sustainable.
“It’s not the fault of the retailers. But we have the most unique system here in the UK.”
She warned that the 10-year ban imposed this week by the competition watchdog on the merger of the two supermarket giants had reinforced Tesco’s dominance in the market.
“We had concerns about what it would have done to suppliers had it gone ahead, But we also have concerns that it didn’t go ahead because you’re now left with Tesco at the very top and no hope of anybody else getting close,” Ms Batters said.
She also warned that Amazon could become a force in food retailing in the future.
Indicating that the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, had privately expressed support for a review of the competition framework, she said: “He believes it’s a job for Treasury, not for his department. He’s a political heavyweight – and if he’s going to stay in the job and drive the changes, it’s going to have to happen in the next 12 months.”
Ms Batters said the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal would open access to the British market “to every country in the world, producing food to standards that would be illegal in Britain”.
She added: “We need to turn the focus away from retail, which is already regulated, and drive change on Government buying rules.
“We’re in for a period of seismic change. We’re not really sure what that change looks like. But if we leave without a deal, we can do nothing about putting food standards in writing.”
Advocating “smashing some glass” and making the industry’s voice heard, she said: “Brexit is surely is about a bigger, better Britain that is eating more British food. We cannot carry on stepping back from direct support, hoping we can have a US trade deal with billions of pounds propping up agriculture – it just won’t work.”
The seminar also heard from Hannah Jackson, the 26-year-old farmer from the Wirral, who markets herself on social media as the “Red Shepherdess” and who advocates communicating with the public on the minutiae of farming life as well as on the major issues.
She said: “We can’t expect the British public to back us if they can’t empathise with us.
“We’re good at supporting ourselves when we’re attacked by certain people and activists. But as an industry we need to push in a more consistent, positive way.”