Human suffering should never be an ingredient in the food we eat

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

MEPs could be handling a series of concessions to food multinationals in the proposed EU law on unfair trading practices. [Shutterstock]

Unfair trading practices must be banned from supermarket supply chains to improve the income and working conditions of the people who produce our food in Europe and across the globe, write Marc-Olivier Herman and Tom Wills.

Marc-Olivier Herman is Oxfam’s EU economic justice policy lead and Tom Wills is a policy adviser of Traidcraft.

We all enjoy good food – nothing compares to sharing a good meal with friends. But too often, the food we buy comes with a hidden ingredient: the suffering of the people who produced it. Brutally squeezed incomes for farmers, pervasive low wages for workers and the widespread denial of labour rights are a common feature of supermarket supply chains around the world.

A proposed EU ban on unfair trading practices used by large buyers is a chance to achieve a fairer food chain.

New research from Oxfam’s Ripe for Change report shows that out of the final price consumers pay for food in the supermarket, the share that goes to small-scale farmers is a meagre 7% (and still shrinking) across a range of food products including coffee, tomatoes and bananas.

Meanwhile, the portion of the money going to supermarkets has risen to 48%. We spoke to people working in supermarket supply chains across the world and found that the majority struggle to feed their own families.

This situation is partly due to unfair trading practices – techniques used by big businesses to abuse their position of power and maximise their profits by bullying their suppliers. These include not paying invoices on time, demanding spurious payments from suppliers and cancelling orders at the last minute.

Such practices leave suppliers with low and unpredictable incomes, meaning less money for ensuring food safety, healthy working conditions, paying decent wages or investing in their business.

The European Commission’s proposal to tackle unfair trading practices in the business-to-business food supply chain could help make food supply chains fairer.

With its proposal to ban certain practices outright and to ensure that there is a regulator to enforce the ban in each member state, the Commission has responded to the demands of the vast majority of stakeholders and of tens of thousands of citizens who have signed a pledge to stand with the people behind the barcodes.

The Commission’s proposal protects food producers and suppliers whether they are based in the European Union or selling to the EU from overseas. Some members of the European Parliament have tabled amendments to limit the scope of the directive to only protect EU producers.

These changes are misled and ultimately would be self-defeating. Suppliers in developing countries are often the most exposed to unfair trading practices. They are less likely to be supported by strong unions or domestic regulation and are therefore much more vulnerable to abusive treatment from big buyers based inside the EU.

What’s more, establishing a level playing field with farmers outside the EU is in the interest of European farmers. If farmers in the EU are protected by regulation while their overseas counterparts are exposed, many companies will choose to buy agricultural products from the weaker supplier, who has no right to complain, leaving European farmers without a market.

Members of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee will vote on the proposed ban on unfair trading practices on October 1 before the entire European Parliament gets a say later in the month. They should vote to protect the people who produce our food wherever they are.

Human suffering should never be an ingredient of the food we eat, regardless of whether that food comes from Europe or beyond its shores.

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