An interview with Gareth Wyn Jones, part 3 of 3
Llanfairfechan hill farmer Gareth Wyn Jones is a passionate and knowledgeable spokesman for the Welsh food industry. In part one of our interview he described how producers are great at producing fantastic food, but they need to work closer together to really sell it. In part two he talked about educating children from an early age so that they understand our food’s journey from farm to fork, and lamented the decline of the tradition of making the family meal around the table a ‘special event’.
In this third and final instalment, Gareth talks about the barriers facing Welsh farmers from one obvious source – the supermarkets – and one that you’d expect to be more supportive; namely, the government.
I pressed Gareth about a subject we’re all aware of to some degree: the fact that supermarkets are seen to ‘squeeze’ producers in order to get the lowest possible prices which they claim to be passing on to their customers. I get quite irritated about this subject, I tell him; yes, there is doubtless some degree of need to respond to market forces such as the amount a consumer is prepared to pay for a price of milk; it’s part and parcel of operating in a competitive environment. But to my cynical mind it’s probably more about getting the best return on investment for shareholders. That’s what really gets my goat, I tell him: more often than not, shareholders are already extremely well-off and besides which they often live abroad; certainly they’re keeping more of their money overseas than they’re putting back into the UK’s economy, whether that’s by spending it in other countries or simply by failing to pay tax in the UK on income they’ve made here.
Just how bad is that ‘squeezing’, though?
“I’m lucky,” Gareth admits, “because I’m not a dairy farmer and so this doesn’t affect me as badly as it could. But let’s take a pint of milk as an example: if you spend 40p on a pint of milk in a supermarket, only about 17p goes to the farmer. Supermarkets say they’re charging what consumers will pay, but in my experience people will actually pay more if the animal welfare is good and local businesses will benefit.” Watching the first episode of The Farmer and the Food Chain shortly after speaking to Gareth, I note that he’s quite correct about this; when he opened his pop-up shop in Bangor for the day, it was buzzing with activity, local producers sold way more produce than they’d expected (vegetable farmer Chris Jones seemed stunned when he announced that he’d picked up 40 new weekly veg box customers), and customers admitted that they were pleasantly surprised at the prices they’d paid for good quality locally-produced food products. They’d expected prices to be much higher.
Gareth uses some colourful language, for which he apologises profusely, when he describes the effects of the supermarkets’ squeeze tactics: “The majority of people are being scr*wed,” he spits. “[The supermarkets] are total b*****ds. We’re a minor cog… 60% of supermarket food is imported, and 30% of it is wasted.”
Retailer market share and food waste
The combined market share of food and non-alcoholic drinks of the largest four food and drink retailers was 58% in 2013, down from 62% in 2012. Tesco commanded the largest market share at 22%, a decrease of 2 percentage points on 2012. The three largest discounters (Aldi, Iceland and Lidl) had a combined market share of 9.9%, up from 7.9% in 2012. Internet food shopping, which includes the largest supermarkets, increased by 1 percentage point on 2012, to 5.4% of sales of food and non-alcoholic drinks.
15 million tonnes of food and drink was wasted in the food chain in 2013 in the UK. Around 41 mt of food are purchased in the UK annually (mainly for use in the home), meaning that the quantity wasted in the supply chain is equivalent to about one third of the food purchased.
The highest proportion of food and drink waste in the food chain was wasted in households, with 7 million tonnes being thrown away in the UK in 2012, or just under half of the 15 mt.
Of the 7 mt of household food and drink waste, 4.2 mt was avoidable, 1.2 mt was possibly avoidable and 1.6 mt was unavoidable.
Manufacturing contributed the second largest proportion of waste, at 26% (3.9 mt), followed by hospitality with 6% (0.92 mt). Grocery retail and wholesale together only wasted 2.9% (0.4 mt).
Source: UK Government, The Food Statistics Pocket Book 2015,
It does seem quite crazy when you look at how the importing and exporting of food in Britain pans out. In fisherman Siôn Williams’ segment in the first episode of the documentary, the narrator passes on some frankly baffling statistics: namely that, Wales not being much of a shellfish-eating nation, 80% of the catch landed here is exported. Conversely, of the seafood that we do eat, a massive 70% is imported. Only about a quarter of Siôn’s catch of lobsters and crabs will stay in Wales; the rest of it ends up on dinner plates in mainland Europe and as far afield as China. It’s all very frustrating.
Governments could be doing more too, though, according to Gareth. “The government is working with supermarkets to press for big growth,” he says. Supermarkets want to do business with bigger producers, he tells me, but “small family farms are best,” he says, before telling me that 86% of food in the world comes from family farms.
Gareth explains that EU legislation stipulates that anyone in the EU may tender for jobs within the British and Welsh governments, and that if Welsh companies do win those tenders there’s no insistence that it’s specifically Welsh produce that is used. “We procure £74m of food in Wales for schools, hospitals and so on,” he tells me. “£45m is procured through Welsh companies, but unfortunately [the procurement rules] don’t stipulate that food must be locally-produced where possible, even if it costs extra.”
Such is Gareth’s passion and enthusiasm, I could quite happily have spoken to him all day. The more we speak, the more I want to open a truly local supermarket or regular farmer’s market so that producers and consumers can better support each other. With no middleman – in my daydream the profits are for the producers, not the owner of the building they’re selling in – producers can afford to charge a little less, and consumers can afford to buy a little more. What a great way to keep money in the local economy!
The documentary’s narrator informs me as I watch the first episode that “it’s estimated that every £10 spent in a local shop is actually worth £25 to the local economy, as the money stays in the community and supports other businesses,” while “£1 spent in a supermarket is estimated to be worth half that spent in a local shop.” With over £17bn a year spent on food and drink in Wales, and almost all of us doing our weekly shop in a supermarket, something has to give… but how do we kick-start that revolution Gareth is so keen to press on with?
I can hear the smile in Gareth’s voice as he tells me the answer: “Let’s tell our story better… let’s make food sexy again!”
I couldn’t agree more.