Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fair trade begins at home

Just a few weeks ago the Office of Fair Trading accused Britain’s leading supermarkets of creaming off excessive profits by together fixing the price of milk and other dairy products. Hard on the heels of a wapping £270 million fine to British Airways for rigging fuel surcharges, the supermarkets are set to face a similar sum from the regulator.

We as consumers have been paying more for our pint but farmers complain that they have not benefited. In fact as we celebrate Harvest, it’s sobering to consider just what pressures British agriculture is facing. Some of those pressures are just perennial hazards for British farming. So the weather is only reliable in being reliably unexpected. But this year has seen unprecedented weather with much of central England besieged by the worst floods in living memory. Hay and silage for animal feed was lost. Crops were washed away. And the autumn vegetable crop in some cases never got planted because the fields were waterlogged.

Meanwhile farmers have lived with the spectre of foot and mouth once more. Memories are fresh and nerves are raw after the 2001 outbreak. In that year much of the UK shut up shop as far as farming was concerned with a ban on livestock movement, footpath closures and the hideous scenes of mass slaughter. A crisis of those proportions seems to have been averted this year but the fear of foot and mouth for farmers has been palpable.

Weather and disease are natural hazards but it’s hardly natural that grain is the same price on markets as 20 years ago. It’s market pressures which leave farmers with just 8p in the £ from sales of food in this country compared to 50p half a century ago. And it’s those same pressures that have resulted in farmers facing one of the highest occupational risks of suicide.

That’s why this Harvest we alongside other parishes are drawing attention to the work of the Farm Crisis Network, a Christian charity which offers practical support to those who bear the consequences. Fair trade extends beyond chocolate and coffee. It extends as well to locally grown produce. Fair trade isn’t charity – it’s about giving just deserts – but it does begin at home.

Fr Andrew