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Why Are Farmers Protesting?

Written by Dan, gardener, volunteer coordinator, tea drinker and Yorkshireman.

Every week at Platt Fields Market Garden when I’m doing the induction for new volunteers I spend a few minutes on my soap box talking about food prices. It goes something like this:

Food is at the heart of everything we do. One of our objectives as a CIC is to promote food at fair prices, which means better prices for producers.

Growing and selling fresh food is barely profitable in this country. The reasons are complicated but mainly I blame the supermarkets.

When you walk into a supermarket the first thing you see are rows of fresh fruit and vegetables. You picture yourself making an elaborate homemade vegetarian lasagne and you feel good about being in Sainsbury’s.

But to make you feel really really good the produce is also sold at low-low, competitor-beating prices. As cheap as they can sell it, and maybe to the point where they make a loss on some things. Once you’re past the fruit and veg the other twenty aisles are full of long-shelf-life processed goods which have a better profit margin.

So fresh food is a loss leader. In France that would be against the law, but not here. The problem comes when the supermarkets have so much purchasing power that they can offer the farmer a lower price knowing they have to take it. After all, Tesco controls a 27.3% share of the UK grocery market and a lot of produce is grown on contract. If you don’t sell to them, pick one of the other Big Six.

Here’s a game I play with the volunteers called Guess How Much Profit The Farmer Makes:

Per kilo of carrots? 0.01p. Per kilo of apples? 3p. Per sliced loaf of bread? 0.09p (Source: Unpicking Food Prices, Sustain 2022

So why do farmers bother? Well many don't. Small mixed farms are rapidly going out of business and losing out to super-efficient factory farms and migrant labour. Go look at the size of Thanet Earth on google maps and imagine how many hedgerows had to be ripped up.

Agricultural subsidies in their various forms were designed as a sort of welfare and to maintain low food prices, but now most of them are aimed at improving the environment. Naturally the farmer thinks: where's the incentive to grow food? Farming is becoming a hobby.

So now farmers are protesting, not just here and in the EU, but all over the world. In February farmers in Punjab were protesting for a law to protect minimum prices for crops. Their struggle is the same.

Market forces are the hidden hand at work here and the supermarkets use it to their advantage. I could set up a grocers a hundred miles away from the nearest Tesco and charge the true cost of growing and supplying the food, but everyone who comes to buy carrots will have a price already anchored in their head by what the supermarkets offer today. How much?!

But wait Dan, this is the free market. Isn’t this actually an efficient way of distributing food to people at a price they can afford? Well yes, but as with any skewed marketplace someone is getting shafted somewhere. Affordable? My rent costs about half of my income and nobody is doing any work for that money.

(Here I could digress into Marxist economics about the difference between capitalism and commerce, but usually at this point the volunteers are after a cuppa, and so then I move on to talk about composting.)

The supermarkets have ruined everything. A cartel is “an association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition.” What we have with fresh food is the same thing, but maintaining low prices, without necessarily a conspiratorial word being said. Everyone is doing it.

If farmers can’t make a profit they will simply go out of business or “diversify” into glamping or something, and then we’ll buy in all our food from the global south. Remember Fairtrade? We’ll need that for UK farmers eventually. Look at the supermarkets advertising their "fair price for dairy farmers" rubbish.

But to finish on a positive thought, the fresh food that we grow at the Market Garden has a value much higher than you could ever sell it for. It's been grown by our own fair hands, it's organic and has no food miles, and it tastes so much better when you share it with friends and neighbours.


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Hi, Dan.

Did I understand you correctly when you said that your rent costs about half your income and nobody is doing any work for that money? Did you mean that nobody would work somewhere if that meant that their income would cover only half the rent? That is the majority of this country. Minimum wage or living wage covers 40% of the rent for someone in a shared house, for a family or if you want to live by yourself which should not be considered a luxury rent is definitely 60% of income. So having to pay more for vegetables seems absolutely outrageous in today's economy for the little person. I agree that supermarkets getting richer is also not…

Jun 01
Replying to

Yep Raddon is right. I wanted to make the point that what someone considers affordable is seen in the context of what they pay for everything else, and also the difference between production and assets.

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