The milk blockade is part of a far crueller story

It's just an episode in a scandalous, decades-long tale of corporate greed.

Every couple of years the papers run a story about the food in your local supermarket. It goes like this: you know that Lochmuir Salmon you get in Marks and Spencer? Well, turns out Lochmuir isn’t a crystal-clear lake near Edinburgh, populated by ginger-haired men in rowing boats, catching ethically-sourced salmon in small nets.

In fact, there’s no such place as Lochmuir: it’s just a brand name, chosen by a panel of consumers. The salmon’s actually farmed on an industrial scale at various sites around Scotland, by a supplier called Scottish Sea Farms.

Having revealed this and other similar tricks (Tesco’s Willow Farm, home of its chickens, is just a bunch of barns across the country, for example), the journalists generally shrug their shoulders. But it’s where the story begins. Because the idea is to give the impression of “local” food from a guaranteed source: products that have, in recent years, exploded in popularity. And the fact they only want to give this impression helps illustrate a scandalous, decades-long tale of corporate greed.

Unlike the bankers at RBS and other institutions, it didn’t financially imperil the country. Many of those who suffered weren’t the kind of people journalists care about. But in terms of pure, callous, blood-soaked capitalism, you’d do well to find a more nauseating story.

Let’s rewind the clock a couple of decades. Between 1990 and 1996, the number of independent shops with annual sales of less than £100,000 declined by 36 per cent. Over an equivalent period, the number of superstores in Britain more than doubled, to over 1,000. A 1998 report by the now-defunct Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions made an explicit link between the two figures. It said some food shops lost up to 50% of trade when a supermarket opened.

This, we’re told, was simply the market in action: customers getting what they wanted. But you have to ask why customers got what they wanted so quickly, while no provision was made for those who’d be left behind by this brave new world.

The answer in the first instance is that corporations know how to grease the wheels of local government. In one town alone -  Seaton in Devon - Tesco offered a package including a visitor centre, football pitches and buses. For the people of Witney, it offered to build a new main road.

And the supermarkets exerted even more influence at a national level – quite apart from the number of supermarket execs on government task forces over the years, one need only look at the 13 meetings Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury held with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills ministers and officials between 2008 and 2009: years when their stores were springing up at a rate of nearly one a day.

“But the superstores create jobs!” was the mantra, churned out by the companies themselves and rarely challenged by the government, despite a 1998 report by the National Retail Planning Forum that found evidence the superstores had a negative net impact on employment up to 15km away.

It’s hardly rocket science. Your local butcher might well be less efficient than a supermarket, but he’s more likely to buy his meat from a local farm, use a local builder for maintenance jobs, and spend his profits in the local economy.

This caused untold damage to the social fabric of our small towns and cities, but was as nothing compared to that wrought on food suppliers. Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons have now taken control of nearly 80 per cent of British food retail. Your out- of-town supermarket controls a local monopoly, and it’s most effective for it to buy most of its produce from a small number of large farms.

And all this has had a heavy impact on the two million people in rural Britain living below the poverty line, and, according to last month’s Observer, to the 3,000 small and medium-scale farmers in Britain put in poverty or out of business over the past decade.

I have my journalistic case study; but it’s one I can’t bear to write about in detail. He was a close friend of a friend, and he died by his own hand. Was his depression purely a result of his financial worries? No doubt it could be spun that way. Such things are impossible to quantify. All we know is: they have an impact. Governmental figures from the 1990s revealed that farmers were nearly twice as likely to commit suicide as the rest of the general population, and one shudders to think what results a similar survey would reveal today

And what of the “lucky” farmers who do supply the supermarkets? They have nowhere else to go, and so the stores can specify any number of conditions over the meat or crops they supply. Supermarkets can set whatever price they like, until the farmer’s business folds, whereupon they’ll find a new supplier.

“You won’t hear a word from the farmers on record,” says Jeanette Longfield, coordinator of Sustain, a charity that campaigns for better food and farming. “The simple fact is they’re scared to come forward, because they know they’ll be punished.”

This month we’ve seen an uncharacteristically coordinated response to the supermarkets’ sharp practises, with farmers taking to Westminster and blockades of milk plants around the country. But this is one of many occasions over the last couple of decades when the supermarkets have overstepped the mark.

“This issue comes up time and again,” says Longfield, “Milk, unlike other products, is hard to transport, so you’d think the farmers would have bargaining power. But the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has historically seemed either unable or unwilling to unionise their members.” And indeed, many have asked whether the NFU can really be called a union at all, such is its close relationship with government.

All this pain, we’re told, is worth it for low food prices. Some will point the finger of blame at producers like Dairy Crest. But Andrew Hemming of Farmers For Action this morning left Radio 4 listeners in no doubt as to the culpability of the supermarkets in putting pressure on them. The prices paid by the supermarkets – some less than the cost of production – must be seen in the context of a world in which they’ve quadrupled their profits on every litre in the last 15 years. As Longfield says: “Would consumers even notice a few pence extra on the price of their milk? People gladly pay more for bottled water. It’s madness.”

A common belief is that the farmers are all subsidised by the European Union, so none of this really matters. “It’s not that simple,” says Longfield. “Due to the complexity of the Common Agricultural Policy regime, large farms will work the system to their advantage. The subsidies often don’t benefit the smaller farms.”

The impotence of politics in the face of big business is highlighted by how long it’s taken for any kind of legislation to appear that might stymie this lunacy. It only materialised, in fact, because, in 2006 the Office of Fair Trading made a reference to the Competition Commission after a court case involving Action Aid and the Association of Convenience Stores. The resulting report in 2008 proposed a better code of practise enforced by an ombudsman. The resulting Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill is at its third reading in the House of Lords.

Michael Hutchings, a solicitor who has advised the grocery market on the inquiry, says: “By this point competition policy was supposed to be politically independent and in the hands of the OFT and Competition Commission, but as we saw with Lloyds/HBOS – and more recently BSkyB - the government was happy to fudge the decision.

“All the details have been decided and have cross party support – it just needs a stroke of a statutory pen. Instead we’re getting long parliamentary debates in the Lords. One peer wants to give retailers the right to go to court before reports into them are published – the adjudicator won’t have the hundreds of thousands of pounds required to fight a case like that.”

Despite this, Hutchings still expects the bill to be passed without being watered down too much: “An adjudicator will have two jobs – first to arbitrate disputes between the two – this won’t really happen because the producers are scared. But more importantly, to carry out generic investigations, which will have an impact. The important thing is that the bill starts with the principle of fair dealing. Most industries do work fairly, because you don’t have such an imbalance of power between producer and supplier. This is a special case.”

 

Supermarkets can set whatever price they like for farmers' produce. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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The top 10 reasons Brexit isn't working, according to Brexiteers

We'd have got away with it, if it weren't for that pesky Mark Carney. 

Over the next few years, it is likely that the economy will shrink, that the entire government will be consumed by trade negotiations at the expense of every other priority, and that EU leaders will use their considerable negotiation advantages to theatrically screw us. As this unpretty story unfolds, those who argued confidently for Brexit, in parliament and in the press, will feel compelled to maintain that they were right, and that if it hadn’t been for some other impossible-to-foresee factor everything would be going splendidly. What follows is an attempt to anticipate the most predictable post-rationalisations; I’m sure there will be more creative efforts.

1. WHITEHALL SABOTAGE. If we’re making no progress in trade negotiations, that’s because the civil service is doing its best to scupper a successful Brexit. That power-crazed madman Jeremy Heywood will stop at nothing to ensure he is bossed by Brussels, and the snooty bastards at the Treasury are working to subvert the national will out of spite. Even as our finest ministers strive manfully to cut Britannia free of its enslaving chains, all they hear from functionaries is “It’s a bit more complicated than that”. It’s only complicated because they want it to be.
 

2. REMAINERS TALKING DOWN THE COUNTRY. God knows we tried to reach out to them, with our gently teasing admonitions for being elitist snobs who just needed to get over it. But did they concede that a glorious future is at hand, if only we all wish for it? No, my friends, they did not. Instead, they sulkily point out how the things they predicted would happen are in fact happening, as if this somehow proves they were right. And since, inexplicably, the world agrees them, the whiners’ prophecy is being fulfilled.
 

3. THE GLOBAL ECONOMY. It appears the UK economy has sunk into a recession. Now, the whiners will tell you that this has got something to do with the vast uncertainty created by taking a fundamental decision about the nation’s future without a clue about how to implement it. In reality, of course, the recession has been caused by the same global economic headwinds that had absolutely nothing to do with the 2008 financial crisis, which was all Gordon Brown's fault.
 

4. ECONOMISTS. Since they nearly all said that Britain would be worse off if it voted Out, they now feel compelled to tell us that things are indeed worse. OK, maybe they are worse. But think about it: if we hadn’t voted Out, the economy might be even more calamitously buggered than it is now. This is logically unassailable. But do economists ever point it out? Do they Brussels. Yet sadly, global businesses, investors, consumers, and lots of other people who frankly lack gumption or vision, take these so-called experts seriously.
 

5. MARK CARNEY. Let’s get this straight: the Canadian governor of the Bank of England doesn’t want Britain to succeed, because then we’d be a direct competitor to his motherland. But with his honeyed voice and perpendicular jaw and incessant references to “data”, this man has gone a long way to convincing much of the public that he is some kind of disinterested authority on Britain’s economy. In reality, of course, he is out to destroy it, and seems to be making a pretty good fist of doing so.
 

6. EU BUREAUCRATS. You know those people we spent years attacking for being interfering, self-enriching, incompetent fools? Turns out they are now keen to make our lives as difficult as possible. The way to deal with this, of course, is to mount a national campaign of vilification. Another one. Before long they will be begging for mercy.
 

7. THERESA MAY. Look, we all wanted her to succeed. We knew she wasn’t one of us, but she wasn’t exactly one of them either, so we gave her a chance. Yet perhaps it is time to admit the possibility that the Prime Minister isn’t making this work because, when it comes down to it, she just doesn’t share our blood-pumping, sap-extruding belief in Britain unbound. In short, she’s just too damn reasonable. It’s time to embrace the unreasonable man. What’s Boris doing these days?
 

8. THOSE OTHER BREXITEERS (i). Not only can we not get the Remainers to present a united front to Brussels, it seems that we can’t even rely on our fellow Brexiteers. Most of us are on the same page: take back control of our borders, blue passports, compulsory blazers, onwards and upwards to the sunlit uplands. But there are some among our own ranks who frankly don’t get it. These latte-sipping media types simper on endlessly about the importance of retaining access to the single market and seem awfully keen on Norway. Why don’t they just go and join Remain?
 

9. THOSE OTHER BREXITEERS (ii). Hey guys, the problem is this: Brexit got hijacked by the roast beef and two veg brigade, OK? For us it was always about unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit, shaking off the dead hand of Eurocrat regulation, being more human, that kind of thing. We had to go along with all that anti-immigration stuff but believe me we were biting our tongues and crossing our fingers. Some of our best friends are Turkish.
 

10. NONSENSE, IT IS WORKING.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.