Coopérateur met Tim Bennett,
president of the National Farmers
Union in the United Kingdom, the
equivalent of the Quebec Farmer’s
Union. An ex-dairy farmer turned
beef producer, he has headed the
180,000-member organization for
just a year. He is lucid and clear
about the future of his profession.
agricole : Given that the
recent animal health crises have
cost you 65 000 jobs, including
those of farmers, what lessons you
: Foot and Mouth Disease
didn’t pose a risk to humans
but it has affected sales because
consumers are very nervous about
any animal disease, whether or not
the risk is real. The first lesson
we learned was not to burn or slaughter
on TV because of the public’s
perception. It will have a long-term
effect on jobs. We have worked very
hard on this. The consumers now
buy more beef before the BSE crisis.
We did a very good job.
How did you do that?
The only way is complete traceability.
Every animal has identification
tags, one in each ear, and a passport.
So that every time a beef or a dairy
animal moves from one farm to another,
its path is recorded in a national
data base and registered in a central
computer. Sheep are registered in
flocks of 50. Pigs are not registered
because production is more integrated
and there is less movement from
the farm to the slaughterhouse.
How much did that system cost?
A real fortune! The next step has
been to build an independent inspection
system for farms to assure that
producers are following animal health
rules. Each year, an independent
body audits dairy, lamb and beef
Do you think consumers are going
to trust this system?
Yeah, because it’s independent.
They do trust the supermarkets!
For some reason, they trust Tesco
and Wal-Mart. So we have our independent
inspection system from farm to slaughterhouse.
In terms of the farmer, we have
records of all the feed given an
animal. Each feed delivery and a
list of its ingredients is recorded
at the farm. We also inspect transport.
People must be formally taught how
to move animals. And the slaughterhouses
must be completely inspected. An
inspection is guaranteed at every
step in the process, from the farm
through to the supermarket. The
government has its job, but producers
have had to do more to gain the
You mentioned that people trust
the supermarkets. Why?
They build a private brand name.
When consumers go into a supermarket,
they tell themselves that because
a product is on its shelves, the
store has already assured itself
that it’s safe. At the moment,
Tesco is our largest supermarket,
and most consumers feel comfortable
with its brand.
It’s almost if the supermarkets
have replaced the government in
its role as defender of public health.
Oh, there is no doubt! I mean, the
consumers in this country do not
trust the government. Each time
a minister says that a food is safe,
the public worries. The public has
confidence only in an independent
inspection system. Tesco has more
credibility over food safety than
my own minister!
Do you think this is due to the
Yeah. We had a lot of politicians
saying that BSE is not a problem,
that there is no risk, and then
it turned out there was a risk.
I believe it will be a long time
before the public regains its trust
According to the new European Common
Agriculture Policy, English producers
will receive a big part of their
$7 billion annually, not to raise
animals and cultivate cereals, but
to protect the environment. How
will that work?
Starting in spring 2005, the government
will inspect farms. A set of conditions
have been laid down. If you want
to receive government money, you
have to produce under the requirements
of the environmental code of practice.
You can’t cut your hedgerows
at certain times. You can’t
plow up to the hedgerow. You can’t
spray fields with pesticides. You
have keep margins from the watercourses.
If you obey those rules, you get
So farmers will have to become more
Yeah, more market oriented. For
the last 50 years, ever since the
end of the Second World War, beef,
sheep and grain producers have been
paid for what they produce. Now,
farmers will only produce if it
is profitable to do so.
You will have to produce in a context
where you have four major supermarkets
dictating the rules: How are you
going to cope with that?
With great difficulty. We face two
big problems. One is that processors
in the likes of Unilever are very
powerful and so are the supermarkets:
So trying to get a good price and
be treated fairly is probably our
biggest problem. The other problem
we face is that we live on an island
of 60 million people who keep a
close watch on whatever we may do.
That’s a lot of pressure.
Everybody knows the British countryside.
The public wants clean water, and
there is not a lot of water for
farmers to use for irrigation because
the public comes first. They want
to be able to walk in the countryside
and they want the countryside to
be kept pretty. So everything we
do, the consumer notices it. That
adds to our costs. On the other
hand, we have 25 million people
living within 50 miles of London,
some among the wealthiest in the
world. So my job as a farmer is
to sell my products to them at a
How you going to deal with Tesco
– each individual farmer?
We aren’t very good at that.
In the dairy sector, we’ve
got some very large dairy coops.
But that’s not the case for
beef and sheep.
You think co-ops are a solution?
They can be. Co-ops only work if
they are run like stock market companies.
Farmers’ co-ops only work
if they allow professionals to manage
Isn’t that ironic that there
are so few co-ops, given that the
movement started in England?
British farmers are individualists.
They don’t like to work with
each other. It’s not like
in France or Germany, which have
very large farmers’ co-ops.
The trend seems to be to produce
under contract. Do you think it’s
Farmers now produce food through
a chain, and I think the trend will
be that some of my farmers will
produce under contract for ASDA-Wal-Mart
and Tesco, while others will produce
for food services, caterers and
So they will have logos, just like
athlete wear the Nike or adidas
Yeah. Whether or not it’s
good or bad. I think that it’s
not good because there’s a
danger that farmers will work only
for big companies which is fine,
if it’s profitable. But if
farmers become slaves to the big
multinationals, I believe they’ll
stop producing. In the future, if
they don’t make money, they
In 2000, there was a government
investigation into how supermarkets
deal with their suppliers, which
led to the creation of the Fair
Trade Office. But not a single complaint
has been made. Why?
The problem is that in theory, we
have a government-imposed code of
practices to counterbalance the
effect of powerful supermarkets.
Farmers or suppliers can come and
complain, but nobody does so because
to complain in public about a supermarket
means you will never sell your product
You know a lot of people in this
Yeah. Everyone. Because it’s
not just the four supermarkets,
the catering industry and restaurants.
If you denounce a big player, no
one will buy your product. You’re
labeled like a black sheep. You
lose your business. It doesn’t
What do you do if, for example,
you’re tied to a contract
under which you produce a variety
of potato that doesn’t sell
on the shelves? Wouldn’t this
have repercussions right down to
the seed growers?
I’ll tell you what we’re
trying to do. We are working on
a Fair Trade Ethical System, on
a buyers’ chart signed by
farmers, the processors and the
supermarkets. We are discussing
this right now because the British
public worry about fairness. If
Tesco or Nestlé don’t
behave responsibly, they will be
named and shamed. The press will
say, ‘Well, didn’t you
sign that charter? Why do you act
this way?’ We need to make
it, to create a situation that publicly
embarrasses the defaulter.
When it will be ready?
Tentatively, in January 2005. People
are saying it’s a good idea
but until everyone has signed up,
we don’t know if it will work.
What about food security? For example,
if a supermarket that stocks up
the world over can’t do so
any longer, for one reason or another?
To be honest, politicians think
in terms of no longer than the next
year. They don’t think in
terms of 10 years from now. Politicians
don’t give a damn about food
security in this country.
Even in this terrorist age?
They don’t give a damn. I
think all politicians want is cheap
food. They want us to produce food
but the idea that we’ve got
to care for British farmers and
British consumers, well, they don’t
believe in that.