Supermarkets must take the pressure off

In two weeks' time, growers and suppliers to the vegetable industry will be gathering in Peterborough to debate the impact of sustainability on the sector. The issue, says organiser of the ADAS/Syngenta UK Vegetable Industry Conference & Exhibition Don Tiffin, will have a major impact on the industry - "whether we're talking about water use, carbon footprints or energy use" (Grower, p35).

The irony - and tragedy - is that just as sustainability is indeed becoming a major issue within the food supply chain - to the extent that a small number of retailers are seriously targeting a reduction in food miles by focusing on local or regional sourcing - some fear that 2008 could be the year that UK production of some crops heads towards collapse.

Following warnings that growers in the South West are facing disaster as supermarkets pay 18p for a head of cauliflower costing 28.6p to produce, the NFU is preparing to tackle the main culprits, which it says are threatening growers' survival by squeezing them too tightly on prices.

The latest crisis follows last year's flooding, which played havoc with vegetable production across the board. In the case of brassicas, the sector had, until last year, seen some steady progress. Since 2001, UK production of brassicas has been on the increase, after a slump in the late 1990s. A slight overall upturn in farm-gate prices, meanwhile, saw the value of UK production of brassicas rise. Last year's floods saw volumes down significantly to 60 or 70 per cent of usual levels.

Now, with consumers squeezed by the credit crunch and high-street retailers reporting disastrous sales over the Christmas period, growers - as ever - are feeling the heat of increased supermarket competition.

As Professor Geoff Dixon noted last week (Grower, 24 January, p36), record cereal prices offer growers facing such a difficult market the chance of a crop change with safer rewards. For many, the answer will lie in greater co-operation, which has already helped many brassica growers. But if some vote with their feet, supermarkets could find it that much harder to meet the pressure for sustainability through regional sourcing.


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Professor Geoffrey Dixon

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