Farming - The Global Industry
By the time we finish breakfast we have tasted food from around the world: tea, coffee, fruit juice, nuts, maize and rice (in cereal), flour (in bread), bananas, raisins, sugar, bacon and eggs which may have come from the UK, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. And yet, how much thought have we given to those who produce our food? As we sit finishing our meal in the UK our perceptions of farmers and farm workers are probably based on men driving tractors. But women and children working with simple hand tools produce the majority of the world’s food!
FARMERS - THE BIGGEST PART, BUT THE SMALLEST PLAYERS
Although farmers have worked the hardest to supply food, they often receive the smallest share of the money we spend on it.
- For every £1 spent on bananas 40p goes to the retailer and only 10p to the pickers and growers (Christian Aid).
- In the UK fifty years ago, farmers used to receive about half of every £1 that shoppers spent on food in the shops, now they’re getting less than 8p in the £1 (Jules Pretty).
Farming is a vulnerable industry, sustained and characterised over centuries by seasonal patterns of sowing and harvest. It is affected by climate, disease, pests, politics, “food-trends” and economics, making farmers the major risk takers in the food industry, susceptible to all kinds of external forces. The majority of the world’s farmers start each growing season with no guarantee of how much food they will produce, how much it will cost them to produce it, or how much money they will receive if and when it is sold.
How many of us would be prepared to work without the guarantee of a minimum income, and have to wait months before we receive a penny for our labour as many southern farmers have to? Even in the UK many farmers make below the minimum wage!
In the name of consumers, and under the direction of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) farmers everywhere are being forced to survive with less support from their governments, and with less protection from cheap overseas imports – imports that may have been produced with few animal welfare or human health considerations, or with the use of very poorly paid labour.
This trade “liberalisation” has meant that farmers the world over are facing a similar problem, the basic price they are being paid for their produce is going down.
- Cocoa went from being worth US $1,800 per tonne in 1997, to less than US $1,000 per tonne in 2001. This has had devastating effects not just on farmers but on countries such as Ghana, which are heavily dependent on the foreign income they generate from cocoa sales.
- Coffee prices have fallen by 70% since 1997, costing exporters in poor countries $8 billion, but retailers and brand names continue to make a healthy profit.
- In the UK the total income from farming has plummeted over the last ten years, from £2.4 billion to £1.7 billion which, when combined with foot and mouth, BSE and other farming crises, has forced 100,000 farmers to leave the industry in that time (DEFRA).
FARMERS - COLLEAGUES OR COMPETITORS?
The idea that we have to create more competition between farmers to reduce prices for consumers is flawed. With an estimated 800 million people hungry and malnourished in the world, there’s no advantage to competition between farmers in the UK and farmers in developing countries in getting food onto plates.
There are more than enough mouths for every bit of food produced in the world. In reality the competition that has been created is for the biggest profits from spending on food. Farmers’ competitors in this are the major multiple retailers, processors and manufacturers who dominate the global food supply. For example 5 supermarkets control over 80% of all grocery sales in the UK. Tesco, the biggest, on its own holds nearly 25% of the market.
A way forward?
In the UK, farmers feel that they have done as much as they can to improve productivity and efficiency. If they need to generate more income they are forced to consider amalgamation, diversification into farmers’ markets, box schemes, on-farm processing or conversion to organic farming, or are forced to diversify out of farming and into tourism or other non-farming activities.
Fairtrade offers a hope for some developing country farmers and ensures that participating producers receive a fair price for their produce, but it does not yet help farmers in the UK, or those in the South who do not export their produce.
In developing countries farmers often struggle to get access to sufficient resources (such as land, soil, water, fertiliser and credit) to produce the harvests they need. Even when they do produce more than they need for themselves, they find it difficult to find a market for this surplus produce.
Making a difference?
All farmers in developing countries and the UK need a fair price for their produce if they are to survive. Both developing country and UK farmers need the support of consumers:
- For UK produce this could mean supporting farmers markets, box schemes and farm shops. It could also mean looking carefully at food labels in shops and trying to buy local seasonal produce.
- For produce from developing countries the FAIRTRADE mark ( www.fairtrade.org.uk ) is the only independent guarantee that the producers will have had a fair deal.