The dark side of the food industry

I spent a couple of days last week at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). This began as an alternative to the long-established Oxford Farming Conference, which was viewed as a forum for big farmers and the agri-tech industry – lots of talk of bigger machines and new inputs, much more about ‘the industry’ than people or nature.

Having never been, I do not know if this is fair (the website gives a clue) but in its seventh year the ‘real’ conference is now the bigger of the two events.

The ORFC exists to promote agroecology, and there were plenty of organic and biodynamic farmers, smallholders and would-be Diggers attending. But I also saw people from the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), big estates, LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) and others involved in ‘mainstream’ farming. The dialogue is good, and one can hope for a growing understanding that profitable, productive farming need not conflict with beautiful, nature-rich countryside.

However, the most challenging (and depressing) session I attended concerned not nature, but people – the migrant labourers on whom our food industry increasingly depends. I wrote about it for the next issue of the Countryman – a slightly longer version of my column is below.

Like many people, I shop carefully. Generally I try to buy from local producers I trust, but when I buy from supermarkets I look for British food to support British famers, and food with some environmental or animal welfare credentials. A debate I attended at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in January has made me realise that I need to think harder about who is producing the food and in what conditions.

The session heard from the investigative journalist Felicity Lawrence. A picture emerged of a food and farming industry dependent, to an alarming degree, on cheap migrant labourers. Many are brought to Britain with false papers and on false promises of prosperity, and kept in conditions little better than slavery.

We were told that very few industrial-scale farming businesses operate without this ‘irregular’ labour. Can this really be true? I know some big producers I would trust to do the right thing. But it would be good to hear a denial from the industry.

We heard of migrant workers living in horribly overcrowded conditions, working back-breaking 12 hour days, seven days a week, and worse. Inevitably their presence leads to tensions with local people, some of whom they have displaced from their jobs.

Consumers want cheap food and governments do not want to stop them getting it. Much of what is going on is illegal, and there seems to be virtually no enforcement of the law. One participant in the session said: ‘criminals are operating our food system and we’re not going after them.’ This may be an exaggeration; or it may not be.

I guess there is an unspoken view that this is modern farming life, and that if UK agri-business had to treat its workers properly, it would become uncompetitive. But similar arguments can be made against workers’ rights in all areas.

I hope this issue will get much more attention. Felicity Lawrence has written a series of powerful and shocking articles for the Guardian on migrant labour and modern slavery – for instance here and here. And Sustain, the Alliance for Better Food and Farming, has a positive aim of a million good jobs in food and farming. At present, too many of the jobs are very bad, which is one reason why only those with no rights will do them.

We should not blame the migrants, but we should certainly regret the state’s withdrawal from its responsibilities. Perhaps a good start would be to revive the Agricultural Wages Board to ensure that farm workers are better paid – and then, of course, to enforce the law.

We should also question our cheap food culture. It is often said that cheap food helps the poor, and I recognise that those on good incomes should think twice before calling for more expensive food. But while cheap food may benefit some (that is questionable: it depends what the food is) our cheap food culture impoverishes others – poorly paid farmers, farm workers, factory workers and many others in the food business.

As a nation we should value our food more. Sometimes, we should pay more for it. CPRE’s From field to fork report on local food webs highlights the social, as well as environmental benefits of a healthy food culture.



5 Responses to “The dark side of the food industry”

  1. 1 Andrew Carey January 11, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    An article on farming without a mention of the subsidies to farming? Come on Shaun. This is a major cause of misallocated resources in both the UK and the countries that the migrant workers have come from. Subsidies mean that the former communist countries have mechanised and shed jobs faster than they would have done if progress had been left to the free market. Typical % shares of the labour force in agriculture have fallen from around 20% to 10% in Eastern Europe. The displaced work force move ironically to the countries that provide the biggest net contributions to the CAP, namely Germany and the UK because they want to earn a living.

    Meanwhile if you’re convinced people are being trafficked and/or National Minimum Wage laws are being broken, then for the love of Allah, please report it, or at least promote the methods of reporting it, redline etc.

    • 2 sspiers January 12, 2016 at 12:04 pm

      Andrew, thanks for your comment. Subsidies have obviously had an impact on farming in the former eastern bloc countries, but the migrants coming to the UK are not necessarily displaced farmers, or people who would be farming in their own countries if they had not mechanised so fast. I certainly don’t accept a causal link between farm subsidies (which have played a significant part in UK agriculture since 1947) and desperately poor working conditions in Britain.

      As for your last point, I was reporting what I heard at the seminar. I have no evidence myself. However, if you follow the links to Felicity Lawrence’s reports you will see that it is not easy to secure prosecutions.

  2. 3 tracydwjones January 12, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Don’t also forget the UK (non migrant) farmers & growers living on v low wages often below living wage. Some parts of the country are off limits as a place to live because the wages won’t possibly cover renting a property & feeding a family. We need to be far more fair trade towards farm labourers & growers. There is a dark side to our food system which needs correcting. I feel boosting the image of the farmer/grower as a highly skilled, professional may help lead to more appropriate salaries & job opportunities. I’m also deeply concerned about small scale, sustainable ag relying too heavily on funding which leads to projects starting & stopping which is not sustainable at all.

  3. 5 CPRE Local Supporter January 18, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    The Oxford Real Farming Conference sounds an excellent event, especially as the long-established Oxford Farming Conference seems to have lost its status as agriculture declines in national economic importance. Neither conference is however reported in the national press – whereas the OFC used to be covered 20-30 years ago in some detail. The effective loss of agricultural correspondents of national newspapers is an indication of the low profile of farming today. People who get that title are usually also covering environment, or business – they don’t know much about farming.

    The Real Farming Conference would however need to expand into more coverage of ‘conventional’ farming if it is to become influential. The description on its website states:
    “Sessions over the years have ranged from the intricacies of soil microbiology to new kinds of marketing, micro-dairies, mob grazing and agroforestry; from the joys and tribulations of crofting, to the kind of economic structure we need to support the kind of farming and marketing that we need, to the underlying morality of farming – why some ways of doing things are better than others; and many more.
    “We are also exploring new ways of structuring farms – with groups of like-minded people running various quasi-independent but linked farming and related enterprises in the same space, to form a cooperative or a partnership that is more efficient biologically, more robust economically, and more convivial, than any one person can achieve alone.”

    This sounds too idealistic to be a major competitor with the commercial farming and too much of the activity described could be unprofitable. It would be better if the Real Farming Conference also covered more conventional farming and sought to examine how to keep the traditional ‘family farm’ as an economic unit. It might look at how to modernise tenant farming; for example the tax system which encourages landlords to ‘share-farm’ and ‘contract farm’ with tenants jointly rather than developing a form of full long-term tenancy for the future.

    These are matters beyond CPRE’s capabilities but a wider grouping of environmental and farming bodies might make progress together. And yes, restoring the Agricultural Wages Board (under another name) would be something to campaign for.

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