Today I am delighted to have a guest blog from my old friend Ruth Davis. We used to work at Plantlife together. Ruth is Political Director at Greenpeace though these are her own views.
Ruth is starting an open debate about the politics of the environment and the idea of a Common Good Manifesto. You can find out more about her project on her website here.
This is her piece and Ruth has posted my piece on here Blog, which you can find here.
Living wages and good food.
Organise ‘good food contracts’ that provide a fair price for locally produced food, inexchange for farmers committing to look after our countryside, wildlife, water supplies and soils.
The details of such contracts would be locally specific, for example they might recognise farmers’ efforts to contribute to sustainable catchment management plans. Those signing up to them would commit (amongst other things) to paying a living wage to farm employees.
Although large-scale agri-business can be a hugely profitable enterprise for the few, many smaller farmers struggle to secure a ‘living price’ for their produce in the teeth of the buying power of super-markets, extended supply chains that cream off value, and the availability of cheaper imported alternatives.
This in turn means that small farmers often struggle with debt; and that their children and employees are priced out of the housing market by commuters, holiday makers or investors. Suicide rates amongst small farmers remain alarmingly high, whilst the pressure for land to be abandoned, or to become aggregated in the hands of agricultural corporations is intense.
Yet most of us understand that food and its production have a value way beyond their price in the market place. This is in fact recognised implicitly through payments made under the Common Agricultural Policy; but these payments have come to be seen as ‘hand-outs from Brussels’, rather than part of a contract with farmers to secure our common good. This perception is made worse when multi-national businesses and very wealthy land-owners receive large payments, without any recognition that such subsidies incur obligations to the country as a whole – and when despite the CAP, small farmers seeking to farm sustainably cannot stay afloat.
Such problems are compounded by the failure to connect living wage campaigns in our cities with the concept of a ‘living price’ for locally produced food and living wages for agricultural labourers. Why should not Government departments, companies and institutions that are willing to pay a living wage to their employees (for example) not also consider how the contracts they have with food suppliers impact on living wages in rural communities, and on the health of our countryside?
Good food partnerships would provide one means to address these problems, by building much stronger links between local food suppliers and buyers. In essence, buyers would purchase preferentially from local suppliers, paying a fair price in doing so, whilst suppliers would pay a living wage to their employees and ensure that their farming practice helped (for example) to reduce flood risk, improve water quality, restore and protect nature, and encourage access for local people.
Such contracts could be initiated through a variety of routes, for example by hospitals and local health professionals, schools and local authorities joining forces to share procurement practices across a local area, and challenging retailers to sign similar contracts; or through groups of retailers forming co-operative ventures with local farmers. Conservation groups could and should seek to partner with groups of farmers with land close to adjacent to nature reserves, perhaps considering how they might use their own CAP payments to support the establishment of such projects and to market them to big buyers such as supermarkets or local businesses.
Whilst the essence of good food partnerships would be local, and not necessarily state driven, central Government could play a catalytic and supportive role by providing incentives to the formation of good food partnerships in a number of ways. Firstly, they could stretch the limits of existing CAP payment rules, to ensure that where-ever possible additional support is directed to those entering into such arrangements. They could also continue to press for this to central to future CAP reform. Secondly, they could consider allowing farmers who are part of food partnerships a greater flexibility in implementing existing regulations, where any risk is reduced by (for example) by adopting low input/impact practices across the farm, or entering into specific conservation-orientated arrangements with water companies, conservations groups or other relevant partners.
Central government could also play a role in exploring how existing, vertically aligned funding streams (CAP, flood defence, conservation payments, health, education) could be more effectively and comprehensively devolved downwards to respond to local needs.