Campaigners had hoped that GCA boss Christine Tacon would be given new powers to cover indirect suppliers to supermarkets. Currently, Ms Tacon only has responsibility for direct suppliers to supermarkets.

In January this year, South East Farmer pointed out that indirect suppliers include the estimated 93% of dairy farmers who supply a dairy business such as Muller which then goes on to deal direct with supermarkets. We described how the groceries code action network (GCAN) had written a letter to Tory MP Neil Parish, chairman of the environment, food and rural affairs (EFRA) select committee in the house of commons, urging him to put pressure on the government to give Ms Tacon new powers to help indirect suppliers.

At the time, the government had still not published its response to a consultation issued 11 months beforehand. Now that response has been published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and it has ruled out extending Ms Tacon’s remit.

The response said that “…most of the large retailers highlighted problems with extending the GCA’s remit and argued against any further intervention. Several retailers commented that the GCA is successfully delivering against its remit and there are dangers in diluting its effectiveness by adding further responsibilities.” Although there was concern about what has happened to some farmers and growers in the supply chain, there is no clear evidence of “systematic widespread market failures.” Instead, the government plans to introduce smaller changes such as compulsory written contracts in the dairy sector during this year and a requirement for slaughterhouses in England to use a standard grid for the classification of sheep carcases.

Reaction to the government announcement from GCAN members was swift. Tom Wills, policy adviser at Traidcraft Exchange, said: “This announcement leaves millions of farmers in the UK and overseas exposed to unfair buying practices such as last minute cancellation of orders and unexplained deductions from invoices.

“The GCA made a great start in dealing with these abuses by supermarkets. But this announcement means it won’t be able to tackle these very same practices if carried out by a big food brand or manufacturer. Brexit is creating huge uncertainty in the food sector and this offers no comfort to farmers or food businesses.”

George Dunn, chief executive of the Reading based Tenant Farmers’ Association, said: “This list of offerings is very much second best in comparison to the comprehensive regulatory framework needed. They will scratch the surface of the unfair trading practices that exist upstream of the direct relationships already covered by the GCA.”

Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East and an EFRA member, said: “There is clearly more that needs to be done to address imbalances in the relationship between suppliers and supermarkets, to ensure that farmers can get a decent price for their produce and are treated fairly and consistently by buyers. It’s particularly disappointing that the government is not prepared to extend protection to indirect suppliers. Our big supermarkets and manufacturers should not be passing market risk onto farmers either here or in developing countries, placing their livelihoods in jeopardy.”