UK/East Anglia: Supermarkets ‘must do more’ to support rural economies, claims report

Lady Caroline Cranbrook in Suffolk Food Hall, Ipswich

Lady Caroline Cranbrook in Suffolk Food Hall, Ipswich

Supermarkets are failing to support farmers and the countryside, according to a hard-hitting report out today.

Rural campaigners the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which carried out a survey of the UK’s seven leading supermarkets, claimed they could “easily do much more” to help rural economies – a view supported by many East Anglian farmers who believe a ‘Buy British’ policy should be pushed more to the fore.

But retailers defended their record, arguing that they are “great” supporters of local food, and source the vast majority of products like milk, butter, eggs, carrots, potatoes and beef here in the UK.

Local food campaigner, Lady Caroline Cranbrook, backed the findings but said that companies like the East of England Co-op and Waitrose did support local suppliers and set an example which other supermarkets should follow.

The study, carried out in the wake of very challenging conditions for farmers, including exceptionally cold and wet weather conditions from last autumn, focused on Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, M&S, The Co-operative national group and Waitrose.

CPRE supporters sent more than 7,000 emails to the chief executives of the major supermarkets asking how they are supporting the farmers, local food producers, and the management of the countryside.

After analysing the responses they received, the CPRE said it found some welcome initiatives, but believed all the major supermarkets could do a lot better.

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The CPRE is calling for farmers to be paid “a fair price” for their produce – by taking into account fluctuations in the cost of fertiliser, diesel and animal feed into supermarket pricing formulas, and for more “countryside friendly” food such as produce from Linking the Environment And Farming (LEAF) farmers, “Woodland Eggs” or “Conservation Grade” cereals, to help to manage landscape features and wildlife habitats.

It also said supply chains should be shortened by setting challenging targets for stocking local food – CPRE would like to see at least 10% of sales in a supermarket come from the local area, that is, within 30 miles.

Lady Caroline Cranbrook, vice-president of the CPRE and local food campaigner, backed the report’s findings.

“The survey is right focus on the need to support British farmers and growers. At a time when global food supplies become increasingly volatile, a secure supply of home-produced food is vitally important. However, some of the major retailers’ buying practices may well jeopardise our own industry,” she said.

“The CPRE report is right to focus on fair prices for farmers.

“Flexible buying agreements for producers supplying supermarkets are essential. They must take into account costs of production, particularly unforeseen increases or extreme weather events, as has been experienced this year. It is unsustainable for farmers and growers to supply food below the cost of production.

“As regards supermarkets buying local produce, we are lucky in Suffolk in that both the East of England Co-operative Society and Waitrose support local food suppliers and both have a wide range of local foods in their stores. They are an example to other larger retailers.

Amanda Long, executive officer – membership, marketing and media for the East of England Co-operative Society, said;

“It’s a shame that the East of England Co-operative Society wasn’t one of the food retailers questioned by the CPRE in this survey. As an independent co-operative society we serve local communities and work to keep the pound local. That means providing local jobs, supporting the local communities that we sit at the heart of; and hugely importantly, sourcing as much as we can from local producers and suppliers.

“Our award-winning Sourced Locally programme has had a major effect on the businesses we have worked with since we launched it in 2007. By buying from local businesses we have ploughed over £20million back into the regional economy. This extra demand has supported hundreds of jobs in rural areas and also helped create over 100 new jobs. We currently stock over 2,000 different local products from around 130 local suppliers; many of them direct from the farmers. We think that the journey from field to fork is important and we know our customers feel the same way.”

Andrew Opie, British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) director of food and sustainability, said retailers were “great” supporters of local food producers and pointed out they had pioneered schemes such as the Safe and Local Supplier Approval (SALSA) scheme to help more small local producers get their goods into store.

“Retailers source the vast majority of products like milk, butter, eggs, carrots, potatoes and beef here in the UK and our members give clear country of origin on both fresh meat and processed meat products so that consumers can choose to buy British if that’s what they want,” he said.

“Ultimately, retailers meet consumer demand and whilst many are interested in local produce it is not all consumers and varies across the country. Farm prices are influenced by more than just retailers, as we have seen recently in wheat prices, but retailers pay a fair price to farmers and have pioneered supply chain agreements in milk and other areas. There are, of course, also support payments for farmers from the Common Agricultural Policy to ensure the maintenance of the countryside.”