By Rowan (a small farmer in Victoria)
Have you noticed how the supermarkets have changed their policies on misshapen fruits after the ABC series of The War on Waste? No? Well neither have I.
Farmers still have a huge waste problem because the supermarket buyers decide that produce has to be a certain weight, shape or colour and everything else is rejected. As a farmer up to 60% of your crop can be rejected even if it is perfectly good to eat. That is a huge cost as the farmer still has to pay the planting and ‘picking’ staff, as well as the cost of fertiliser, water, etc. The banks are not very forgiving if you can’t pay your mortgage on time.
Supermarket executives knew that the outrage would only be short-lived, so it was easy for them to sit on their hands and wait it out. They are good at judging public behaviour: they spend millions on research.
They also know that no matter how badly they treat their suppliers, the public and government will never hold them to account. We cringe at the consequences but we all love our cheap food so try not to think about it.
I wonder if anything would change if the public knew some of the practices supermarkets employ in order to offer those products on the shelves that are often made below the cost of production, and why people are too afraid to speak out. There are no whistleblowers within the ranks of supermarket suppliers simply because no government will protect whistleblowers in this area because cheap food means low inflation, and that is all that it cares about. Nothing comes of enquiries because no one dares speak out, and governments won’t act on recommendations anyway.
I wonder how consumers will feel if they knew that up to 40% of supermarket revenue comes from ‘extortion’? This is what I call the practice of emailing farmers and manufacturers ‘asking’ for donations of thousands – even hundreds of thousands in the case of big manufacturers – to go towards their profits, or marketing costs (yes, they are that overt). Of course, they don’t ‘force’ anyone to pay, they just ask. Suppliers know that if they don’t pay up they will immediately delisted and have nowhere to sell their products.
Do you think it is fair for a supermarket to email a farmer just before they harvest their broccoli crop that since they are having a half-price sale on broccoli that week they are only going to pay the farmer half of the agreed price? Of course the farmer has a perishable crop and nowhere else they can sell it at short notice so they have no choice but to accept it. If they even hint of complaining they will find themselves delisted – and when you have hundreds of thousands of dollars in harvesting and packing machinery that is custom designed and made for your farm and product, as well as being in debt up to your eyeballs, you can’t afford any risk of delisting.
Every time you see a product on special at a supermarket, you can bet that it is not them taking a cut: they have stiffed their supplier. Whether it is baby food, capsicums, or soap, everything you buy has a higher price than you know.
The margins are so low already that losing a crop like that a couple of times can send a farmer to the wall, but even if the farmer next door buys them out in an effort to get bigger and try to keep one step ahead, they are also subject to the same practices, but now that they are bigger, the amounts ‘asked’ for also get bigger. Australian farmers are getting more efficient all the time but they just can’t keep up. It is a no-win situation.
It is common practice. I doubt that there is any farmer or food manufacturer who misses out on these predatory practices and extortion.
You might worry about the big manufacturers who damage farmers livelihoods and even whole third world country industries in the quest for cheaper and cheaper food and other goods, but they are just as afraid of the supermarket buyers, and the threat of delisting – supermarkets can always find another cheaper supplier, and don’t care that slave or child labour might be involved, or how many people it hurts, all in the name of more money to their shareholders.
Luckily my farm does not supply directly to supermarkets but I do supply some services to farms that do so I am involved in the whispered complaints that farmers make to each other around the table. As consumers we should all look at how much we are willing to ignore and if it is worth the price of cheap food.
An excellent book to read on the nasty practices of supermarkets is ‘Not on the Label, What really goes into the food on your plate’ by Felicity Lawrence. She puts into words what I would love to have the words to be able to tell everyone who cares about their food and where it comes from.