By Tom Woolman, poultry consultant
The national flock seems to represent a load of farmers on a bus, being driven off a cliff.
I recently got chatting to a Canadian broiler breeder producer. Their country has a quota system for chickens and national production is closely managed to support self sufficiency.
This protects their food system from their neighbours in the US, who could export at a low price and easily overwhelm the domestic supply chain.
Norway has a similar model, with the number of farms tightly limited.
While we have an investigation into the egg supply chain on the cards, and one for poultry meat in Scotland potentially to follow, it is a good time for farmers to question what sort of market they actually want to be a part of.
Our current market is what Professor Tim Lang has labelled ‘Leave It To Tesco’. Let farmers, processors and retail sort it out amongst themselves.
The invisible hand of the market will adjust profit and supply based on demand. Now, there are a huge amount of people questioning this model, but what should replace it?
What we can’t have is a nationwide model that simply agrees to pay the cost of production. Of course this looks great to the farmer but that is because it is a license to print money!
Farmers can’t speculate on what the market requires and then expect their investment to be guaranteed.
You can rewind to the Common Agricultural Policy of the 70s and 80s. This simply encouraged farmers to produce more and more, ending up with grain mountains and milk lakes that the population didn’t need.
If you want a risk free investment, it doesn’t exist.
The only way a cost of production model works for the mainstream is if the market is tightly controlled, usually by government, and I’m not sure how this would go down.
Most of the poultry farmers I know are entrepreneurial and are frustrated enough by the current levels of red tape and planning restrictions.
There is an argument that much tighter protection is needed for our domestic food supply chain, but you can guarantee it would come with a raft of prerequisites attached. The way to farm would be dictated to farmers.
Look at the uproar in the Netherlands as the government tries to balance the requirements of the wider environment with the needs of its farmers.
I think ultimately most farmers would be happy to ‘Leave It To Tesco’ if the retailers would show some more maturity and take a longer term view. There are some retailers who take a lead here.
M&S with the Oakham Gold is an example of a retailer who is serious about supporting farmers in the long run.
Unfortunately, most retailers are now going to be forced to pay much higher inflation than they would have originally for their poultry supply, due to sustained low pricing.
Thinking about it, our public transport system isn’t such a bad metaphor for our food system. Both have been starved of cash and nearing collapse.
But regarding the alternatives, I’m not sure the solutions are as obvious as we sometimes like to think they are.