Why are the supermarket shelves empty? (PART 2)

By Eat Farm Now
6th March 2023

by Ben Eagle; Acting Editor, Eat Farm Now

With the empty shelves in supermarkets story continuing to make headlines and the focus of opinion columns over the weekend, we at Eat Farm Now thought that we’d continue our focus on the real issues behind it.

Across social media, farmers and growers have been telling a story that the situation is indicative of something broader. In short, it’s not just about the weather, as explained in the first part of this article, published here. It’s a symptom of underinvestment in the farming sector as a whole and there is a strong need to review fairness in the supply chain.

As Minette Batters explained at the recent National Farmers Union (NFU) Conference, cost of production has generally risen about 50% since 2019, but the prices that farmers receive don’t meet this same rate.

‘’Farmers and growers must get the fair return their hard work justifies,’’ said Batters.

‘’Volatility, uncertainty and instability are the greatest risks to farm businesses’’ with ‘’consequences being felt far beyond farming’’.

When will producers receive a fairer return? Who is responsible?

This story is as much about fair returns to the producer, as it is about the supply chain and food availability for the consumer. Everyone needs to take responsibility for ensuring our producers stay in business. The culture of driving prices down doesn’t help the situation, it hinders it and sustains the problem. Ultimately, if farmers do not have the money to invest in their businesses they will be unable to play their part to tackle the biggest problems of our time, which include the climate crisis and the nature crisis, both of which they are well placed to tackle.

(1) Andrew Ward 🇬🇧🚜 🇺🇦 on Twitter: “Popped in @Morrisons in Lincoln today: shelf prices seem to be more important than supply. 🤷‍♂️ https://t.co/IBX49KrAgE” / Twitter

Last year the crisis of rising costs hit egg producers particularly badly which led to restrictions in supermarkets. A grass roots campaign by farmers highlighted the extreme challenges that they were facing and as a result the issue was tackled.

When we spoke to egg producer Ioan Humphreys, who farms in mid Wales, he told us that, following the campaign, the price he is now receiving for his eggs is higher than the cost of production, but he added that in general ‘’I think there is a big problem’’ regarding the difference between ‘’what is being paid and the price of production. We wouldn’t have food shortages if it [the price paid to farmers] was fair.’’

He believes that the general public support farmers, but traditionally haven’t been aware of the challenges that farmers face.

‘’I think the general public didn’t really know what was going on between farmers and supermarkets. I had a very positive response with me calling out the supermarkets saying that they need to pay farmers more…I think that the public support farmers far more than we give them credit for, so that is good. I also think support will only continue to grow as this food shortage continues. It’s not our fault as we’re not being paid a fair price…The farmers are made to somehow subsidise cheap food when we simply can’t afford to. ‘’

Food commentator Jay Rayner has written about his concern relating to food self-sufficiency and the ‘economic might’ of the supermarkets. He argues that by keeping food prices low we are neither tackling poverty nor investing in the future, ‘only further damaging our agricultural base’ in his words, and leading to ‘’a dysfunctional food system’’.

Farmers Calling for Fairer Prices

Farmers have taken to social media in recent days to underline their point that prices need to be continually reviewed. Arable farmer and Youtube content creator Olly Harrison has made his point on the issue. He believes that the food shortages issues is wholly indicative of the price being paid to producers being insufficient:

The reason why we are seeing empty supermarket shelves !time for #homegrownfairtrade – YouTube

‘’You might have noticed that some supermarket shelves are getting empty. This is because of a supply of tomatoes and cucumbers not being there. Why is it not there? Well basically it’s dead easy. It’s the supermarkets and the packers and the processors that supply the supermarkets not wanting to pay the true cost of production of those products. And why has the cost of production of those products gone up? Because of the price of gas and oil. You cannot afford to heat greenhouses to grow things out of season in the UK at the moment, and in some of Europe as well. They’re just simply not going to be producing it. Now, had people been getting a fairer price for what they were producing , reflective to the energy prices then the supplies would have carried on, but you are going to see empty supermarket shelves. We should have fair trade home grown produce so that we can produce it all in the UK if we have to. Some people will blame Brexit for stuff not coming in; some people might say there’s diseases within different plants, we always have that, but yes it’s just simply the price isn’t fair at the moment.‘’

Lincolnshire farmer Andrew Ward further vocalised his concern in a recent vlog on his Youtube channel:

FARM UPDATE 117 – SUGAR BEET, EMPTY SHELVES, DRAINAGE, SCREEN ROAD PLANINGS, NFU CONFERENCE, – YouTube

‘It’s so annoying because the supermarkets are putting it down to weather. It’s not weather. It’s because they are not paying farmers and producers enough for the crops that they are buying from us. And when they refuse to pay cost of production plus enough to make a margin, farmers aren’t planting the crops in the field; and I’m talking about vegetables in particular here. Brexit has had an effect because of the labour situation (as in workers not the Labour party)…So it’s not weather related issues; it’s down to the supermarkets screwing the prices down, on what they pay the farmers. And you’ll see…supermarkets put…adverts on TV where they say they are having a price freeze on products and are proud to promote this price freeze. ‘We have frozen the prices of 300 products so that our customers have cheap food’. That is exactly the reason why we are in this situation…Because they set their prices low, when they start negotiating with the farmer, with the producer, they start at a low point and refuse to budge, and this is where the problem is. The price of food is too cheap. And the supermarkets are not paying the farmer enough so they can’t replant the fields…and it’s just not viable.’’

The clock is ticking

All of the trends show a British farming sector that is increasingly threatened on multiple fronts, with action critical to give confidence to producers to invest in their businesses and ensure future supply.

As Minette Batters said in her speech to the NFU conference:

‘’The clock is ticking. It’s ticking for those farmers and growers facing costs of production higher than the returns they get for their produce. It’s ticking for the country, as inflation remains stubbornly high, and the affordability and availability of food come under strain. It’s ticking for our planet, as climate change necessitates urgent, concerted action to reduce emissions and protect our environment. And it’s ticking for government – to start putting meaningful, tangible and effective meat on the bones of the commitments it has made.”

The option of a positive future is there

Amidst the doom and gloom there is a vision for a positive future. On Wednesday this week, the NFU launched a strategy setting out a plan to boost the UK horticultural sector. The strategy sets out the top ten policies which underpin the success of the sector, and which will enable long term growth.

Some retailers are also coming out and underlining their support for their producers, such as online grocer Abel and Cole: ‘’When the front pages picture empty shelves, the reason we can continue to stock, and deliver to our shoppers is due to the close, first-hand and long-running relationships we have with our growers, both in the UK and further afield…We talk to our suppliers regularly, often with boots on the ground in their farms, so we genuinely know what they are facing, and work together to find solutions. We also pay our growers a fair price that they can rely on when times are tough — something that can really help when harvests drop by up to 50%. Now more than ever, it’s crucial for us to work closely with our growers as difficult weather starts to impact food supplies in the shops.’’

The option for a positive future is there. The question is, are we all willing to back our producers to ensure that they stay in business in the long run? It is up to all of us: supermarkets, consumers, politicians, producers, representative organisations and the wider supply chain, to answer this question. We ignore it at our peril.