Le 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.

Coopérateur agricole : Given that the recent animal health crises have cost you 65 000 jobs, including those of farmers, what lessons you have learned?

Tim Bennett : 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.

C.A. How did you do that?

T.B. 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.

C.A. How much did that system cost?

T.B. 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 farms.

C.A. Do you think consumers are going to trust this system?

T.B. 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 consumers’ trust.

C.A. You mentioned that people trust the supermarkets. Why?

T.B. 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.

C.A. It’s almost if the supermarkets have replaced the government in its role as defender of public health.

T.B. 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!

C.A. Do you think this is due to the BSE crisis?

T.B. 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 in politicians.

C.A. 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?

T.B. 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 public money.

C.A. So farmers will have to become more market oriented?

T.B. 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.

C.A. 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?

T.B. 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 profit.

C.A. How you going to deal with Tesco – each individual farmer?

T.B. 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.

C.A. You think co-ops are a solution?

T.B. 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 the business.

C.A. Isn’t that ironic that there are so few co-ops, given that the movement started in England?

T.B. 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.

C.A. The trend seems to be to produce under contract. Do you think it’s the future?

T.B. 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 restaurants.

C.A. So they will have logos, just like athlete wear the Nike or adidas trade mark?

T.B. 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 won’t produce.

C.A. 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?

T.B. 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 again.

C.A. You know a lot of people in this situation?

T.B. 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 work.

C.A. 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?

T.B. 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.

C.A. When it will be ready?

T.B. 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.

C.A. 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?

T.B. 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.

C.A. Even in this terrorist age?

T.B. 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.


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