By Laura Sandys, on the The Telegraph, 24th April 2012
Cheap food is something that we’ve all come to take for granted in Britain. But the world around us is changing at an alarming pace: within a decade, this country may not be a member of the G8; keeping the lights on will be a real challenge; and food that’s as “cheap as chips” will be a thing of the past.
The signs are there already. Last month, food inflation increased to 5.4 per cent, up from 4.2 per cent in February. My constituents frequently raise the issue in the same breath as they complain about the cost of filling up their car or their heating bills. Food is a necessity, rather than a luxury, and it will be the worst off who’ll get hit the hardest.
This has not only cost the consumer, but also the Treasury (ie the taxpayer) – all benefits and pensions have had to be increased by 5.2 per cent, not least due to food inflation. But the truth is that there aren’t that many policy levers for government to pull. Food is not taxed, so there are no opportunities for cuts to relieve the pain. Given that we import 45 per cent of our food, a weak pound that might seem attractive to the manufacturing sector is a lot less amusing at the supermarket check-out. And with the double-whammy of increased global food consumption and climatic impacts on productive land, perhaps it’s time we accepted the inevitable. Food prices are only going in one direction – up.
Maybe we have been deluded by the bountiful years of cheap food. Certainly we have come to regard food as a disposable commodity: research shows that we stock our fridges in a way that replicates the range of choices available on supermarket shelves. After days of “grazing”, we then chuck out those items that we have ignored on previous visits to the fridge, consoled by the fact that they have just reached their sell-by date. I am sure this isn’t how Daily Telegraph readers buy and consume their food, but I have to admit this cycle of behaviour seems all too familiar to me.
But as consumers, we should not be shouldering all the responsibility for food waste, because our food system implicitly promotes it. The business model of supermarkets is constructed around “quantity buying” – the sort of aggressive procurement that results in producers selling for less than cost – combined with rigid aesthetic requirements that lead to the waste of perfectly good food.
That’s why I have set up a not-for-profit company called Ugly Food that aims to buy food that is rejected by supermarkets on aesthetic grounds – the lumpy potato, the bendy carrot or the not-pink-enough apple that have all been rejected for imperfections.
But again, I don’t entirely blame the supermarkets – they have been delivering what we want: food that’s cheap, of high quality, and that comes in a wide range of products, from tempting mini-bites to microwave dinners. I believe that the current model is broken – the cheap cost of food is not delivering value, it is merely replacing value with quantity. Many people are eating too much, or the wrong things. The system pushes you to buy more than you need and about 30 per cent of the value gets binned. If we are to feed our families for less, despite rising food prices, we will need to restore value to food and limit wastage.
But we can’t move away from a “stack ’em high and sell ’em cheap” model in one quick step. Beyond changing the business models of the whole supply chain, the public needs to re-learn lost skills that will help us to cope with high food prices. Just compare the works of Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver to see what we’ve forgotten. Delia, writing in the 1970s and 1980s, has whole chapters on leftovers, while Jamie doesn’t even mention them.
The Government sometimes says it can’t do anything about the rise in food prices, but there are policies that can be adopted. On commodity prices, we need to double our efforts to support free-trade agreements in agricultural goods, support global adoption of high-yield crops and put food production at the heart of our development programmes abroad. In Britain, Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), is already promoting an increase in domestic production. This will ensure that we can hedge the inevitable global volatility. Perhaps the time has now come to initiate a new debate on GM foods.
It is the consumer, however, who needs the greatest help. Government and businesses must strive to support the parents who are trying to feed their families for less despite rising food prices. This is entirely possible. We must put a stop to grocery promotions which either result in waste or unnecessarily high consumption. Retailers could start by providing food in smaller portions, and setting up sections in supermarkets according to ingredients that work together, to make cooking easier.
The Government must push the kind of life skills that affect diet and health throughout the education system, from primary schools onwards. And the voluntary sector could work with families to teach them how to cook, with the focus on better nutrition with a tight budget.
In Parliament today, I am hosting a meeting of food experts from the worlds of international development, British agriculture, food processors, consumers and supermarkets. The following question will be our focus: how can we ensure good food is affordable and valued in a world where global competition and climate change are expected to result in 30 per cent price increases over the next 15 years? It’s not an easy challenge, but one policymakers will need to confront if we are to avoid a growing British population falling into food poverty.