UK farming unions have called for "seismic change" in the food supply chain in the wake of the milk price crisis, warning: "There could be dire consequences for the farming industry and the rural economy."
The four presidents of the NFU, NFU Scotland, NFU Cymru and Ulster Farmers Union, as well as other rural organisations, issued a joint statement urging the Government, EU, processors and retailers "not to ignore the warning signs that farming is in a state of emergency".
Ministers "need to admit that something has gone fundamentally wrong in the supply chain and take remedial action" while voluntary codes "are not delivering", it said. The statement called on the Government to "take action to ensure that contracts to all farmers are longer-term and fairer in apportioning risk and reward".
In response, Defra secretary Elizabeth Truss called a meeting with the devolved administrations and farming leaders (17 August) "to examine further measures".
She added: "We are introducing a fairer tax system for farmers, we continue to cut red tape and have launched a £24m rural growth programme. We are also taking immediate action to help farmers with cash flow and working on our new commitment to buy British produce in our schools, hospitals and Government departments."
Addressing retailers, the unions urged: "Start demonstrating right now how you are ensuring that all the food you are selling comes from a farm that has been paid a fair price." At the same time, they urged farmers: "Keep being visible and keep the British public on our side."
NFU horticulture and potatoes board vice-chairman Ali Capper told Grower: "Things are coming to a bit of a head for everyone. The horticulture board has talked about fairness and transparency in the supply chain for a long time.
"Aldi's commitment (see box) is a good step forward. But still if you ask any horticulture business today they would say there is enormous pressure on price.
"Every time you talk to a supermarket they expect prices to be lower, yet we have higher costs from wages and now pension enrolment to deal with. Meanwhile, we have stable or declining self-sufficiency in most crops."
While oversupply has been blamed for the problems of the dairy sector in particular, Capper added: "There is also a fundamental problem of too much retail square footage. Also, we are mostly small to medium-size enterprises selling to global empires - there is an inequity in scale.
"There are steps the Government could take to make running a farming business simpler. But we ourselves could collaborate more."
Fruit & Veg Pledge - Commitment essential
After Aldi signed up to the NFU's Fruit & Veg Pledge last month, it is "imperative" that other retailers follow its lead, said British Growers chief executive Jack Ward. "If horticulture is to compete in a growing global market, growers must have the support of retailers," he added.
A recent British Growers survey of 139 suppliers found that a third of fruit and vegetable suppliers rate improved marketing as holding the greatest opportunities for growth - well ahead of new technology and diversification.
Ward said: "This shows how important marketing is to UK fruit and vegetable suppliers, and Aldi will now lead the way by funding all produce promotions itself instead of running deals funded by growers."