In recent years farmers across Europe have felt the pressure of reduced farm gate prices paid by supermarkets.There has been various national responses to this such as the Decision by the French authorities to investigate unfair business practices in Carrefour, one of Europe’s largest retailers, and the IFA’s protests outside Lidl and Aldi earlier this year.
The transnational nature of this problem has prompted the European Commission’s agricultural markets task force to call for European legislation aimed at protecting farmers from unfair business practices. Agricultural commissioner Phil Hogan stated that the recommendations of the task force were consistent with ‘the objective of ensuring that farmers get a fair return for their produce’
While much of the measures included in the report such as increased transparency through measures such as mandatory price reporting and improving risk management strategies in farm businesses may have some benefit they do not directly address the issue of farm gate prices. Instead the report feebly recommends that the EU produces a baseline for prohibited trading practices outlineing the maximum waiting period for payments, and no unilateral changes to contracts. Alongside the creation of a EU complaints platform.
The degree of faith farmers ought to put into this recommendations is somewhat weakened by the role played by Jérome Bedeir, Secretary General of the Carrefour group. What hope is there for effective European legislation protecting producer, when the very retailers who are engaged in unfair business practices are at the same time helping to draft EU policy.
The current European pattern of reactive responses to each new crisis such as the recent intervention in the dairy sector is likely to continue in light of the EU’s unwillingness to take a hard line against retailers. Meaning that farmers across Europe will have to rely on their ability to effectively protect their interests in the face of European (and national) inaction.
The overlapping of EU and national responsibility in many areas has meant that farms must ensure that they are heard in Brussels and at home. In recent years we have seen an increase in farm protests outside the EU buildings in Brussels alongside national protest.
These protests whether in Brussels, Dublin or outside the local supermarket may highlight the issues affecting farming communities. But in the absence of viable strategies they are nothing more than a pressure valve for angry farmers to blow off steam, protests while important and necessary are only one part of a successful campaign. For Irish farmers any such campaign would require going beyond the limited horizons of the main farming representative bodies and blaming not only retailers but also the government for allowing the continuation of low cost selling.
In the absence of such a national campaign Irish farmers may have to wait for the outcome of efforts at the European level and reap what ever limited reward they produce