Cutting support payments for farmers means they must be able to rely on fair supply chains, says MP Kerry McCarthy. The UK Government could learn something from the EU approach which is seeking to protect small producers.
As Brexit moves closer, with the uncertainty and upheaval it brings, it’s more important than ever for the Government to ensure a fair and transparent trading environment in which farmers can operate.
The Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) has made some impact in regulating supermarkets and their direct suppliers, but the Government’s recent decision not to extend its role to indirect suppliers leaves many producers unprotected from unfair practices by large food brands, supermarkets and other buyers.
Those who lie outside the Adjudicator’s remit remain in a vulnerable position, subject to last minute order cancellations and unfair hidden charges which transfer risk and costs onto suppliers.
And that is before we factor in the possible effect of supermarket mergers, potentially further depressing the price farmers receive for their produce.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Select Committee, of which I am a member, took evidence earlier this month from the Groceries Code Adjudicator and Defra Minister George Eustice MP.
I seized the opportunity to ask about plans announced by the European Commission in April to tackle unfair trading practices in the food supply chain.
Though based on the GCA, the Commission’s plans go much further, and are geared towards protecting small and medium sized producers, in the EU and beyond, who export into the EU.
The terms of the Brexit transition mean the UK will have to implement the directive should it come into force before the end of the transition period.
The Minister, however, is clearly strongly opposed to these plans. His opposition seemed to be based around the fact that these proposals stem from the EU, and the Government would prefer to deal with this on a national rather than cross-country basis.
Brexit is already putting farmers under strain, with concerns about labour shortages, the future of farm payments, and future trade deals which may open our doors to cheaper, lower quality food imports.
The Government should take the opportunity of these EU proposals to make sure that both now, and in the future, direct and indirect producers are treated fairly and consistently by buyers, be they supermarkets or other actors in the food sector.
Failure to do so would leave British farmers hamstrung at a time of great uncertainty, as our neighbours in the EU press ahead with more support for farmers in tackling unfair trading practices.
As Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan said at the launch of these proposals: ‘Any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. An efficient and effective food supply chain is a fair one.’