Prince Charles tilts at supermarkets for making paupers of farmers

Prince Charles, who turns 65 Thursday, is marking the event by criticizing Britain's supermarkets for squeezing farmers' incomes.
Prince Charles, who turns 65 on Thursday, is marking the event by criticizing Britain's supermarkets for squeezing farmers' incomes. LUKAS COCH

Prince Charles is not amused and is aiming his royal displeasure at Britain's big food stores.

The heir to the British throne slammed supermarket chains on Wednesday for squeezing farmers' incomes by taking "none of the risk."

A day before his 65th birthday, the future king guest-edited Country Life, the 116-year-old weekly magazine about farming and country living. He wrote an impassioned editorial about Britain's struggling farming industry, which he said was facing some of its "toughest challenges."

"Small farmers find themselves in the iniquitous position of taking the biggest risk, often acting as the buffer for the retailer and consumer against all the economic uncertainties of producing food, but receiving the least return," the prince of Wales wrote.

"It cannot be right that a typical hill farmer earns just £12,600 ($20,133) with some surviving on as little as £8,000 ($12,783) a year, whilst the big retailers and their shareholders do so much better out of the deal, having taken none of the risk."

Britain's food retail is dominated by the four big players - Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons. The British Retail Consortium, which represents these supermarkets, said retailers were confident their investment in the food chain meant a strong future for farmers, and that a "high proportion" of supermarket food would continue to be sourced at home.

The prince, who is an avid organic farmer on his country estate, said the current system squeezes farm incomes, meaning that many small and medium-sized farms could not afford to make crucial long-term reinvestment.

"I fear this will create huge problems in the near future, especially in the dairy sector," he added.

Agriculture accounts for 0.7 percent of Britain's gross domestic product, contributing around £26 billion ($41.5 billion) a year to the economy, according to the Office for National Statistics. Output in the sector increased by 1.4 percent in the third quarter of 2013 from the second, but fell 1.6 percent when compared with the same period in 2012.

Prince Charles is a large landowner and has long been a supporter of protecting Britain's countryside, which he described in Country Life as "the unacknowledged backbone of our national identity." His private estate, the Duchy of Cornwall, consists of over 53,000 hectares (130,000 acres) of land and includes an organic farm.

Although he is prohibited by the British constitution from making political statements, he is known to weigh in on other social, cultural and business issues, including the environment, architecture and alternative medicine. Last month the prince raised concerns about the pension system, arguing that fund managers renounce their short-sighted obsession with "quarterly capitalism" and invest in companies that tackle environmental and social challenges.

Prince Charles has been heir to the British throne since he was three, and at 65 will be the oldest heir for almost 300 years. At his age, the prince would probably qualify for a state pension, but he has said he will donate it to a charity which supports the elderly.

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