Farmers’ livelihoods are at risk, and farming could be reduced to a memory ‘within a generation’, says the Church of England; and it’s chiefly the fault of supermarkets.

Supermarkets are guilty of ‘a number of invisible and pernicious practices squeezing farm-gate prices’. If the situation did not change, said the Church of England, farmers will be forced out and the agricultural industry will diminish.

The Church of England’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group report has been submitted to the Competition Commission by its ethical investment group.

The demands:

– An independent ombudsman be appointed.

– Supermarkets stop labelling foreign food as British, just because it is packed here

– An end to flexible contract terms ‘that seldom work to the advantage of the farmer’

– Consumers be made aware of such activities

– Supermarkets stop cutting the prices of vegetables

– An end to the practice of making farmers pay for supermarket promotions

– Supermarkets ‘root out the worst abuses of buying practices’ and ‘publish a buying code of how they do business with local producers’

– An end to arbitrary changes and termination to contracts without considered notice

The Bishop of Exeter, the Right Rev Michael Langrish, chairs the Church’s rural strategy group. He said in a statement: ‘The business practices of the major food retailers have placed considerable stress on the farming community through the use of methods which we believe to be unfair and of which consumers seem to be unaware.

‘Farmers seem to be unwilling to complain or to expose these practices for fear that their produce may be boycotted by the major retailers.’

In compiling the study, which is called ‘Fair Trade Begins at Home’, members of the ethical investment advisory group spoke to 50 farmers in Devon, Somerset, Cheshire, North Yorkshire, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire.

The findings:

– One vegetable farmer received £7 a tonne, rather than £14, because the supermarket decided to include the produce in a special offer.

– A supermarket rejected 1,000 tonnes of potatoes, worth £120,000, that a farmer had grown to order, because they ‘cooked to the wrong colour’.

– A new buyer decided to withdraw their supermarket’s existing order for cheese, even though the producer had already spent one year making the cheese.

However, Asda has responded in a statement: ‘Treating suppliers fairly while ensuring we always get the best deal for our customers is at the heart of how we do business.’

The Church of England owns 125,000 acres (50,000 ha) of agricultural land. Its report, in which it blames supermarkets for putting farmers’ livelihoods at risk, is called ‘Fairtrade begins at home’.

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