Sustainable Food and Farming

'Outside economic forces have done for me. You have no control over prices, everything is set by outsiders. It doesn't matter how well you farm, it just gets harder and harder' a farmer

Fair deal for a square meal?

Food is a basic necessity, but farming is in crisis. Producers are receiving less and less of the price you pay.

At present apples are sold at nearly double the price that farmers are paid for them - eggs, four times.

2p is paid for the wheat in a 50p loaf of bread. The EU subsidy adds just another 1p. A coffee or banana grower receives only 7-8% of the consumer price. And these already small returns keep on getting smaller.

The relationship between consumers and producers of food is now mediated by powerful commercial players. Whilst returns to farmers have shrunk, profit margins for food manufacturers, transporters and supermarkets remain steady or are increasing. In Britain, five supermarkets account for more than 80% of all grocery sales; their mark-up is between 30% and 40%.

This concentration of power enables the middlemen to dictate not only the price but also which varieties are grown, how animals are kept, what chemicals are sprayed and when and where food is bought and sold. If the produce is not uniform in size, shape and colour it is rejected and farmers get nothing. Increased powerlessness and falling returns are destroying farming.

Incomes are very low and falling. In 2000, the average annual income per person employed in British agriculture was £7,500, or £144.20 per week, barely the minimum wage for a 40 hour week; most farmers work 60-70 hours per week. With this, farmers must support their families, re-invest in the farm and provide for old age. Many farmers are tenants who are in danger when old of leaving farming with no home and insufficient income. The average age of farmers is now 58.

Agricultural employment is falling fast. 45,000 people have left farming in the last two years in England and Wales. In poorer countries where farming employs the majority of the people the effects are even worse. In Sri Lanka, a surge in imports in potatoes and onions has resulted in a loss of 300,000 jobs. In Brazil, despite being the second largest exporter of soya, 50% of the population is malnourished (FAO 2000). Because of stress the farming community has one of the highest suicide rates of all British occupations; at least 10% of tenants are on anti-depressants (NFU, 2000).

Reduced prices mean that farmers have to produce at an ever lower cost per unit, at expense of the environment, workers, animals or themselves. Imported food is often cheaper because the consumer price does not include all the human and environmental costs, such as: the large-scale farming of single crops, which harms biodiversity; the stressful long-distance transport of live farm animals; the use of millions of gallons of fuel to transport food up and down the country and round the world; the employment of cheap 'migrant' labour worldwide, whose welfare and rights are disregarded.

What's farming got to do with me?

    - For each person employed in agriculture, 1.6 other workers are maintained in rural areas. For every pound of agricultural income, the local economy gains £2.20 (Rural Development Commission & the Agriculture Training Board 1997).

    - Rural employment is necessary to keep people living in the countryside. Already many rural areas do not have the population density required to sustain key rural services. As shops, post offices, schools, surgeries, public transport and pubs disappear, villages either die or become rural 'dormitories'.

    - Once they have disappeared, farmers cannot be easily re-invented. Their knowledge of locality, soils, climate, crops and animals goes with them.

    - The British landscape of fields, moors and woodlands has been formed and shaped by farmers.

    - Farmers and farmworkers help to keep traditional rural skills and traditions alive.

    - The less food is hauled, handled and added to, the better it is. The more local the production, the more informed your choice can be.

What can I do?

- Buy locally produced food, from farmer's markets, farm shops, "box" schemes or from the Internet. At farmer's markets you can ask exactly how the food was produced. Find out what local food is available in your area and where farmers sell their own produce by visiting www.localfoods.org.uk

- Shop at local, small, specialist shops and producers (e.g. bakers) and encourage them to source locally.

- Buy fairly traded products, such as Cafédirect (Oxfam shops, some farmers' markets, wholefood shops and some supermarkets stock them) to ensure Third World growers also receive a fair price for their produce.

- Go and visit farmers where they live. There are many holiday homes and B&Bs on farms. You can share in the farm activities, buy fresh produce and learn with 'farm trails' and other activities specifically designed for children. Contact the Farm Holiday Bureau at www.farmstay.co.uk ; telephone: 01271 336141.

- Wherever you shop or eat out, ask the management's policy regarding fairly traded and local produce.