Do you know the price of milk? This became a headline story when one MP described prime minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne as “posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”.
Milk is also a local news item as we hear that Robert Wiseman Dairies has followed the lead of Dairy Crest by cutting its standard-contract milk price to farmers by 2p per litre. This has been reportedly caused by a “challenging market environment” and the recent collapse in the value of bulk cream.
Milk is a deregulated global commodity and it appears that the price has fallen. The number of UK dairy farmers is falling rapidly while the processing industry is increasingly concentrated and dominated by three companies Robert Wiseman, Dairy Crest, and Arla Foods UK (who took over Express dairies).
The supermarkets that control two thirds of retail sales further focus this concentration of market power. Meanwhile, many farmers sell their milk below the real cost.
This is one example of a global food system that affects us all. It is estimated that three agribusiness firms Cargill, Bunge and ADM control nearly 90% of grain trading between them. CGIAR ,a world-leading group of agricultural research centres for developing countries, has an annual budget of $500m, less than half the $1.2bn spent on research and development by the multinational company Monsanto.
Agriculture is increasingly diverted to make profits not food as 40% of the US corn crop ends up in gas tanks instead of stomachs. Farming is under pressure around the world.
Oxfam is demanding via our GROW campaign that support for small-scale farming in developing countries is increased, so that food can be grown for people. More than 70% of people living in poor countries depend on agriculture to make a living. As well as growing food they also need some cash crops. In Africa an estimated 1.5 million people depend on agricultural exports to the UK for a living.
For poor people producing and farming the food that fills our plates, these livelihoods, some of them founded on Fairtrade agreements, are the gateway to self-sufficiency, long-term sustainable development and ultimately a way to work out of poverty. That is why Oxfam is campaigning to demand that the world food system serve local food needs, wherever they are, and not only commodity speculation or global corporate profits.
So global campaigning is needed but we can also get some dirt under our fingernails by becoming food producers ourselves, whether we have a window box, an allotment or a garden. Seeds which can be sown now or shortly, include: lettuces, spring onion, sorrel, broad beans, spinach, carrots, kohlrabi, leeks, turnips, peas, parsnips, calabrese, radishes and beetroot.
With salads sow a short run of each and repeat in a few weeks, so you always have some lovely green leaves at the right stage for harvest. If you have a few pots you can sow basil, courgettes, winter squash, french beans, florence fennel, cucumbers, gherkins and cauliflower, and plant out in five or six weeks.
As you execute this local revolution you can also be part of the global campaign to fight climate change by opting for peat-free compost. According to Defra, Britons use 2.4m cubic metres for horticulture per year. In effect we’ve been tearing up Britain and Ireland’s bogs since the 1970s for gardening. We are destroying our most effective carbon sink (a reservoir that removes CO2 from the atmosphere).
Globally, peatlands are more important than tropical rainforest in terms of taking carbon out of the atmosphere a cubic metre of extracted peat eventually releases around 50kg of CO2 (and more CO2 is released from drained peatland surfaces, too). The UK now has a voluntary target for the amateur garden market to be peat-free by 2020.
So there is plenty of action we can take: food producers, whether local or overseas, need our support to help create a more sustainable and fairer food system. In Bristol we have a thriving and literally ‘growing’ local food scene, we have also been recognised as the leading Fairtrade City in the UK.
One exciting event coming up soon on May 19 is Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day when thousands of people around the world will come together – businesses, schools, sports stars, celebrities – to hold events and cooking classes to put good food back on the agenda.
The world food system is dominated by a few hundred companies, including retailers, who currently take most of the value from the supply chain – we need to challenge governments and companies to change that system. Bristol’s Local Food Network and the Bristol Fairtrade Network along with Oxfam’s Grow campaign will feature in the forthcoming Big Green Week to help build these connections.
Roger James is a campaigner for Oxfam South West in Bristol