Follow the potato to a fairer food system
Tuesday, 2nd January 2018 by Julie Brown
Growing Communities director Julie Brown

Growing Communities' director Julie Brown gave this moving and inspiring report at our AGM in December. Many people who were there on the night asked for a copy of her speech, so we thought we'd share it more widely. While a lot about the current food system makes grim reading, there are hugely positive stories coming from the small-scale organic farmers we work with. Buying food through GC means supporting a fairer, kinder, more sustainable way of life for everyone in the food supply chain - as well as having access to fantastic fresh food every week.


So, I’ve managed to get out a bit in the last few weeks. I went to the Veg Summit at City Hall. I attended a ‘Farming for Five a Day’ event at the House of Commons – with 4 MPs including Neil Parish – the chair of the EFRA committee. I went to the launch of the Soil Association’s Organic Supply Chains report and most recently I went along to the Sustain AGM.

They were all interesting and useful in their different ways. But the most affecting was the talk at the Sustain meeting by Felicity Lawrence – investigative journalist – who spoke about pay and poverty in the food and farming system.

She started with the invention of the barcode and the just-in-time supply system it has enabled.

She explained how the fluctuating demand for food that this engenders makes it very hard to sustain decent, regular employment conditions. As she said in this article published in the Guardian: “Orders can double or halve within 24 hours, so workers to process and pack the goods are called in at short notice. This reduces costs and increases profits, since businesses no longer have to keep inventory or pay for full employment.”

The article also describes how, in many parts of the UK, agricultural workers – most of them migrants – live and work in appalling conditions.

Felicity said this has an impact on many market towns: the gang masters, the associated corruption, prostitution and the antagonism with local people.

She commented that many of those local people used to work in agriculture and described the work as hard but decent – but now it was unfit for sustaining any kind of reasonable family life.


Making a packet

Then she spoke about where the money in the food system goes, with increasing proportions of profit going to shareholders and CEO-to-worker pay gaps rising phenomenally, just as workers’ terms and conditions are being eroded.

• In 2017 Tesco’s CEO earned more than 258 times as much as the average staff pay. (So it takes the average worker about two months to earn what CEO Dave Lewis pockets in an hour.) At Sainsbury’s, the ratio was 191:1 and at Morrisons it was 152:1 (according to this report from the CIPD

Felicity gave the example of Walkers, a UK brand founded in 1948 with UK production, UK sales, using UK potatoes. A few years ago PepsiCo restructured the Walkers business through tax havens resulting in Walkers Snack Foods’ tax bill reducing from the £28 million they paid back in 1998 to 14.7 million in 1999, then to reportedly around £8 million in 2002. These totals were later disputed and HMRC clawed back a little, but less than what they would have got before.

What they own is still in the UK but, on paper, Walkers is no longer directly responsible for the British potatoes that go in to the UK factories to be made into crisps, nor all of the crisps it makes, nor all of the sales it clocks up in the UK.


Mass exploitation

Felicity’s speech wasn’t exactly a shock but it was very affecting to have it all laid out like that. To see just how extractive – in terms of money and resources – the whole system is.

And it brought home to me just how significant the barcode/just-in-time system is for fresh produce. Because fresh produce has limited time before it spoils, it has to be moved through the system very quickly. So, fluctuations in demand, the perpetual summer we witness in the supermarkets, unreasonable expectations of ‘quality’ and price have led not just to massive waste and environmental damage but to the creation of a system of exploitation here and across the world that is akin to modern slavery.

When it comes to fresh fruit and veg in particular, I just don’t think it’s possible for us to have what we want, when we want it without it taking us down that route.


Another side to the story

Fortunately, I was able to describe another side to the story and I used the humble UK potato – apparently disowned by Walkers Crisps – to help me do that.

Many of the potatoes we sell through our box scheme and farmers’ market are supplied by Martin from Ripple Farm in Kent. He’s of Irish decent and very proud of his potatoes. At this time of year we pay him 60p for a kilo of pots. (It’s 95p at the beginning of the season).

Current Defra figures put the average farm gate price as 11p a kilo. I’d very much like find out more about how much the farms that Felicity illustrated in her talk are paid for their potatoes, so we can find some specific examples, but it’s reasonable to assume they are close to that average.

So we pay Martin over five times as much as that. But Martin is not rich! He’s one of the most hardworking and decent people I know.

That price along with our commitment to paying him promptly means that Martin is able to farm sustainably according to organic principles and to develop his business. During the time he’s been working with us he has extended his organic land from 14 acres to 115 acres.


A quick aside…

I’d just like to highlight a couple of other things that happened recently:

First, new research highlighted the extent of global ecosystem collapse with insect abundance having fallen by 75% since 1990.
And second, according to our own environment secretary Michael Gove, the UK is 30 to 40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility” in parts of the country.

Earlier this month he said:

“If you have heavy machines churning the soil and impacting it, if you drench it in chemicals that improve yields but in the long term undercut the future fertility of that soil, you can increase yields year on year but ultimately you really are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that.”

Both these hugely significant issues – biodiversity loss and soil degradation – are intimately and directly tied up with our current industrialised agriculture practices: primarily our use of pesticides and chemical nitrogen fertiliser.

We have a farming system that has been practising and developing techniques which do not rely on pesticides or chemical nitrogen for around 100 years or so. It’s called ‘organic’.

It’s not perfect but it is currently the only way for us as retailers to be able to know that the food we are trading is produced in the most sustainable way possible.


But back to Martin and his potatoes

So not only is he able to farm organically, but he can provide decent pay and working conditions for his workers. He pays his staff – 11 full-time equivalents – the Living Wage Foundation rate of £8.80 an hour. He pays that to workers from age 18 (the mandatory scheme, the National Living wage, only pays its highest rate to older workers). He provides free lunch and vegetables to take home, tops up maternity pay for part-time staff and he even has a profit share scheme for workers. Plus he buys high-quality, all-weather work gear for the workers who are out in fields. (It’s very snazzy!)

And while we pay Martin over five times the average price for his potatoes, we don’t charge our customers five times the price. We are able to pass that produce on at a price that compares favourably and is quite often cheaper than the organic produce on sale in the supermarkets.

And in the middle of that we are able to support 25 jobs here in Hackney, which pay the real London Living Wage as a minimum and twice that as a maximum. We provide pretty good working conditions including free, fresh-cooked, veg-filled (of course!) staff lunches on the busiest days of the week.

We could tell a different – though similarly heartening – story for Adrian Izzard and Sarah Green and the other farmers we work with. And we hope to do more to tell those stories over the coming year and to compare and contrast them with the kind of farming operations that Felicity was describing in her talk.


What are we prepared to pay?

Because it seems to me that we get the food and farming system that we as a society are willing and able to pay for.

So, by paying our farmers fairly and promptly we can help them to run their businesses well. And by supporting organic production methods we can protect our soils, build biodiversity and reduce the climate impact of our farming system. And by ordering from farmers in a regular, consistent and timely way according to the seasons – we can make a real difference to agricultural working conditions.

This last point is something I want to reflect more on because there is something about the box scheme model that really supports this particular approach. It would be good to think more about what we might do to communicate more about that to our current and future customers.

And I want to make sure that it is built into our plans for the Better Food Shed – the collaborative distribution/wholesaling operation that we’re planning to launch next year. I.e. we need to create systems that enable all the traders using the Shed to plan together with the farmers to ensure regular and consistent supplies.

I also want to emphasise how it is part of the thinking behind our proposed Food Credit Scheme – where we’re planning to enable customers to donate their bags when they take a holiday. We would then process the veg into ready meals – ideally working with our trained food workers at Dagenham Farm – and then distribute these via food banks along with cooking demos. There are multiple benefits to this idea. One of those is to help smooth out the fluctuations in demand when people go on holiday so we can keep ordering as much as we can as consistently as we can from our farmers.


Squaring the circle

So, lots to consider. But in the meantime, I think it’s fair to say we do a pretty good job of squaring the tricky financial circle of trading fairly with our farmers, paying ourselves decent wages and charging our customers affordable prices. I feel very proud about that and I hope you do too.

Sadly, we haven’t – yet – managed to square the even trickier financial circle that results in the cheapest food in our society being the most unhealthy and the least sustainable and the fact that many people are unable to afford fresh food, never mind sustainably produced or organic food.

We do our bit. We offer a pensioner’s discount and we accept Healthy Start vouchers. Uncollected bags go to Hackney Migrant Centre and NLAH, the homeless project, and we’re running a scheme for customers going on holiday over Xmas to donate their bags to local food banks.

But we need wider systemic and economic changes to square that particular circle. And we are very keen that what we are doing on the ground can continue to feed into wider campaigns and policy work and so we’ll be doing what we can to support Sustain and the LWA with their work over the coming year.

And if we’re successful with funding, we’ll be building up the Better Food Traders network, doing more work on the productivity of urban and peri-urban farming, working to set up a new certification system for urban growing and doing more data collection work to help feed into the wider policy work I just mentioned.

So, lots to be getting on with. It feels like an exciting time ahead and a real privilege to be able to do this kind of work, in this kind of way at this point in time.

So to all of you here who buy the food, who produce the food, who work for GC, who volunteer at the sites or who are members of the Board – or some combination of all those things: thank you. It’s your continued support that makes all this possible.

Click here to join the veg scheme.


Author name: 
Julie Brown