Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Apples and supermarkets

In response to I M Ball's letter (November 23). I'm afraid that sadly I am correct about the role of supermarkets in reducing variety and failing to support British growers.
It's an important issue since it affects the future of UK agriculture, and rather than being simply an armchair critic' I have taken a very active personal and academic interest in this over a long period.
The latest Friends of the Earth survey of UK apples in 181 supermarkets (2005, well-referenced and available online, Mr Ball) found the average number of apple varieties in supermarkets was 3.6, of which over half were foreign imports.
It's true that the percentage sourced from the UK is increasing in response to consumer demand, but sadly the damage has already been done: in 1970 MAFF recorded 62,200 hectares of orchards in the UK. This declined to 22,400 hectares in 1997. This is a 64 per cent decline in 27 years, and the loss continues, with a further 13 per cent loss in the two years 2000-2002 for example (DEFRA figures).
A 2004 Guardian report found "At least 60 per cent of all orchards were lost in the past 30 years largely because supermarkets preferred to buy just one or two varieties in bulk from France, the US and New Zealand."
In turn the supermarkets' demands on appearance and price have forced farmers out of business. Supermarkets reject significant amounts of fruit for cosmetic reasons, cancel orders at the last minute and have squeezed profit margins to almost zero for producers.
Small farmers will not replant orchards unless there is security of supply and the prospect of a return; supermarkets offer neither of these, since the grower has all the risk and the retailer takes most of the profit.
Mr Ball is right in one respect, that supermarkets are competitive on price: but that's also part of the problem, and why dairy, fruit and arable farmers are going out of business in larger numbers: the consumer's obsession with cheap food, fuelled by supermarket policies of sourcing from abroad, has driven the small UK farmer to the verge of extinction.
This is well documented and I'm surprised to be accused of getting this wrong. Only this week at the report on the drastic decline in the number of Welsh dairy farmers, blamed almost entirely on the inability of farmers to get a fair price for their milk from supermarkets.
We should be paying a fair price for our food and supporting British farmers in their stewardship of the countryside. Farmers have no security from big supermarket buyers who call all the shots and have no loyalty to their suppliers.
I invite your correspondent to look more closely at this issue- small farmers and small retailers need all the friends they can get.
Bob Steel
Sutton and Croydon Green Party

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