Rose Prince: Poverty at the farm gate goes hand in hand with profit in the till

The greed of the big supermarket chains is preventing us from enjoying British produce. Their excuse of giving consumers 'choice' won't wash, says Rose Prince
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I spend much of my time in Dorset, a dairy farming region. There are farmers there who have not made a profit for months. The poverty can be galling. At this time of year our local charity shops are packed with farming families looking for half-decent school clothes that will fit their children.

I spend much of my time in Dorset, a dairy farming region. There are farmers there who have not made a profit for months. The poverty can be galling. At this time of year our local charity shops are packed with farming families looking for half-decent school clothes that will fit their children.

Today, thousands of farmers will be among those gathering in London for the Liberty and Livelihood march. Some of those involved will be driven by the threat to hunting; others by a concern about the state of the countryside. But the farmers will above all be driven by anger at what is happening to their incomes. It is a desperation felt particularly by dairy farmers, who get less money for their produce than they spend on producing it. But it is not a problem particular to them. Last week the plight of coffee growers in Central America and Africa was highlighted by Oxfam: the prices paid for coffee beans have never been lower; 25 million farmers around the globe face destitution. Oversupply of both coffee and milk is one reason given for the low prices paid to both types of producer.

There is another factor at play here, one that affects us the consumers, as well as the producer, and that is greed. The greed of the processors and the big supermarkets is pushing prices down at the gate and up at the tills. And it is avarice which, if allowed to continue, will destroy any vestige of a relationship between the consumer and the farmer.

The companies that process and freeze-dry our instant coffee, or heat-treat, homogenise and package our milk, are very few. Oxfam names four companies – Nestlé, Kraft, Sara Lee and Procter & Gamble – as the main buyers of coffee. In Britain the dairy industry is ruled by four giants: Dairy Crest, Express, Arla and Robert Wiseman. Around 80 per cent of the food sold in Britain comes out of the doors of the five big supermarkets. They continue to tell us that we get the best value. And who are we to argue? It is impossible to know whether they are right. We do not know the cost of production, or the retailers' mark-up, and most of the time we have no idea if the quality of the raw material is good or bad.

Oxfam says that cheap coffee is poor-quality coffee. If this is true, no one should grow it. We should demand better beans and the processors should pay more for it. It is their responsibility to do so, irrespective of the complexities of the system of pricing this commodity, and the involvement – perhaps interference – of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is they who have dished out loans encouraging new plantations in the name of development, and that is what has left the world awash with coffee. The processors are the only ones who can steer money towards the producers – money that can be found within their vast profits. We know it can be done because the fair-trade organisations, however marginal, have proved it to be possible.

When 400 dairy farmers protested outside the Asda distribution depot at Grangemouth, Scotland, on Thursday, the triumph of fair-trade coffee was relayed by a speaker as an example of how their troubles could be solved. Consumers should be allowed to decide where their money goes. The average price paid to the farmer for a litre of milk is currently 16p, the lowest price in 10 years. To break even, farmers need 19p a litre. Processors and supermarkets tell us little about the cost of processing a litre of milk. But an industry insider tells me it can be as low as 5p a litre to pasteurise, homogenise, pack and deliver the carton to the supermarket door. The mark-up on a litre, which retails for about 50p, is vast for a product that is on the shelf for only a few hours. Not exactly a loss-leader for Tesco and Asda, which hold the majority buying power in the country.

Last week these two supermarkets declared that, to help the farmers, they would pay nearly 2p more per litre of fresh milk. Then, 24 hours later, every other member of the big five supermarket chains followed suit. No, no, they are not a cartel – really. The increase of nearly 2p will be paid to the dairies, however, rather than to the farmers. (We've been paying 2p extra for our milk since Tuesday, by the way.) The dairies claim their processing prices have been squeezed by the supermarkets all these years, so they want a slice. Dairy Crest is paying 0.77p of this 2p to the farmers that directly supply them, while other dairies remain undecided. But even if this pay rise were to reach farmers in its entirety, it would not make the 19p per litre break-even point.

The real value of the food we eat can be known only when the middle men are removed. In Cumbria the Countryside Alliance rural regeneration division is backing a scheme that has seen the start-up of 34 food co-operatives. Residents in towns have formed groups that buy food weekly, direct from farmers. About £2 will buy a week's worth of vegetables, 67p a dozen free-range eggs, and £10 a box containing pounds and pounds of freshly made sausages and pure beefburgers. The co-operatives are so successful that the scheme is expanding to other areas. The discovery of food's true worth is proving addictive.

There are other ways in which money can be injected into the British dairy industry. Halt the flood of cheaper foreign imports of processed milk foods such as cheese, yoghurt, butter and whey powder and, at the very least, tell us through accurate labelling when we are eating food that contains imported ingredients. It would go some way to dealing with the over-supply problem. But supermarkets are reluctant to take such a step because, they say with innocent quaintness, they like to offer us a choice.

Choice is a word I hear bandied about everywhere I go as a food writer. Everyone loves this horrid little word. "We like to offer all our customers choice," the supermarkets intone. Seed growers say the same, along with food producers of all kinds; even the Soil Association says that organic groupies want choice. But I'll tell you the true meaning of choice. It means cheap imports; it means poor-quality, intensively produced food that we could easily grow at home.

Choice is trouble. It is the excuse given for all those out-of-season vegetables we could happily live without. It allows in endless bacon and butter from the Netherlands, cheddar cheese from South Africa, beef from Botswana and yoghurt from France. "We have to stock these things because you want choice," they cry.

No, I don't. I want home-grown bacon, yoghurt, cheddar, beef and butter. I want it at a fair price. And I want the supermarkets to accept that consumers and suppliers deserve some of their wealth.

There is not a great deal that we as consumers can do except to use our purchasing power wherever possible. Buy into fair-trade coffee, for instance. The coffee quality is fine, sometimes excellent – and you know where your money is going. Buy milk from supermarkets that pay farmers a fair price: Waitrose and Marks & Spencer fit into this category, as do some small local dairies and dairy co-operatives with milk rounds.Or, perhaps you can do what I do. Buy it at the farm gate. Raw, still warm from the dairy, non-homogenised with a layer of yellow cream on top. It's quite illegal and, at £2 for a gallon churn, it's a steal.