I had an interesting conversation the other day with Matthew Murton, a near neighbour in Wales but also, until last year, a large scale organic vegetable producer in Herefordshire.
Matthew is a highly organised, efficient producer, but also has a strong ethical commitment to the quality of life of his team of workers. He built up his business on very high quality rented Herefordshire land to quite a large scale – around 150 acres, before the recession hit. Since then he has been progressively reducing his area of production, which was down to 45 acres last year and he has now decided to throw in the towel and sell up altogether.
I asked him why he had reached this decision, and he said that it had got to the point where he could no longer feel any sense of satisfaction from dealing with supermarket and other buyers in a cut throat environment where price was the only issue, ethics didn’t matter and organic vegetables had become a commodity traded on international markets. He told me that no one was immune from these pressures, even the larger box schemes, and that in his view market conditions were so depressing that he felt we would probably have to wait for some kind of a collapse of the existing position and marketing structures which are leading, quite literally, to the survival of the largest and fittest at the expense of the small, beautiful and ethical, before favourable conditions would exist again for his kind of project.
Although I was pretty shocked to hear this, on reflection I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. You only have to visit a few supermarkets (I won’t name them since I think there are now virtually no exceptions) to realise that the recession linked response of the multiple retailers has been to pile it high, sell it cheap and compromise on the production story, to the point where, to use the infamous quote of Eric Schlosser, if you knew the real story behind the food you wouldn’t want to buy it.
Sadly that includes organic produce which, although there are of course exceptions, is in the main now often supplied by conventional packers who are often part of multi national trading groups buying from industrial scale farms from all over the world.
None of the individual participants are responsible for this depressing scenario, it is just the inevitable outcome of a world where consumer ignorance is compounded by an economic and policy environment where the polluter doesn’t pay and sustainable producers are not adequately rewarded for the wider beneficial outcomes resulting from their farming systems. None of this diminishes my optimism that a ‘tipping point’ could lie round the corner, after which the surviving models of best practice will become beacons of inspiration and the teachers of the truly sustainable food systems that everyone will need to adopt at some point in the 21st century, but in the meantime it is dog eat dog out there in the marketplace.
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