What is the main reason behind Britain’s rise in food prices?
JP There is no single reason. Reduced home production, especially of vegetables, is one factor and currency exchange rates are significant. The overall change affecting everyone is the globalisation of the food market and increasing demand for food from China and elsewhere. Politicians have been concentrating on the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] and missing the dramatic changes in world supply and demand which will only get worse.
HI-D There is no single factor responsible for Britain’s rising food prices, but several factors are coming together in a perfect storm: drought and water shortages in major grain production areas, increasing demand in China and India for meat and vegetables, exchange rates, rising oil prices affecting input costs (fertilisers and pesticides especially), and competition between food and energy crops are all playing their part. But the growing role of commodity trading by speculators who have no direct stake or interest in food production is a worrying and often overlooked issue.
How can the government address this price rise?
JP As the CAP has rightly moved away from production subsidy, there is little direct action available to the government. It is the open market which is delivering price rises. However, by encouraging UK producers to expand production using all available scientific techniques, we can minimise the impact of future global price spikes. There is also great scope for developing more local food outlets whether they be local hubs for procurement or large outlets for local producers; basically anything which gets the consumer closer to the producer of the raw material cuts out a large part of the supply chain and should make food cheaper.
HI-D Domestically the UK government needs to do more to promote food security and food production here in the UK: boosting collaboration on applied science, research and food and farming technology; eradicating waste in agriculture and food manufacturing and retail and home – all along the supply-chain to consumers; the essence should be to get more out, from less in, and with less waste. Internationally, the government should urgently wake up to the need to tackle commodity speculation which can contribute to higher and more volatile prices globally.
According to Defra, in five years (2007-2012), food prices rose 32 per cent in the UK, compared to 13 per cent in France and Germany. How come food prices are rocketing far higher here than in other European countries?
JP The principal cause of the differentiation is the exchange rate which affects both imports and, significantly, stimulates exports. However, supermarkets carry some responsibility for driving up margins for themselves whilst presenting themselves as the consumers’ friend. In many EU countries, the tradition of preparing your own meals is much more embedded, thus protecting consumers from cost pressures beyond the farm gate.
HI-D Last year, the UK experienced six per cent food inflation, which was the second highest in the EU outside Hungary. For a family of two adults and two children that meant an added cost of £233. These food price increases, added to rapidly rising energy costs and wider inflation and set against depressed wages and incomes means that food affordability is now part of the wider cost of living crisis in the UK. When Defra’s own figures show the consumption of fresh fruit and veg by the poorest families is down 30 per cent since 2006, the government must accept its responsibility.
To what extent should politicians be involved in advising us about our diets and food consumption?
JP Politicians, and more particularly government agencies, should present the facts on healthy eating and let consumers choose. Beyond that, politicians should keep out of it. Arguments about the rights and wrongs of eating meat are absurdly simplistic. Two thirds of the world’s farmland is grass and the only way humans can gain from it is to convert it to meat or milk.
HI-D Politicians are not always best placed to give advice directly, but they do have a key role in government and in opposition – working through and with others – to influence behaviour and shape effective responses. That’s why Labour has been actively working with voluntary organisations like Fareshare to tackle food waste in supermarkets and farming, and promoting foodbanks as a positive and essential response to the growing food affordability crisis. Promoting healthier lifestyles and diet is a vital role for government, not just for the intrinsic benefits for individuals, but for the societal benefits such as savings to the NHS.
When shopping for food and drink, in what ways are consumers’ tastes changing and why?
JP Until the current economic crisis, the major change in demand was for prepared or semi-prepared meals or ingredients. There is some evidence of more cooking from scratch taking place now, but overall the demand is still for convenience. In addition, tastes are becoming more global in terms of diet – not just in eating out but also, increasingly, eating at home as well.
HI-D The current economic climate means customers are shopping more frequently and bargain-hunting to avoid waste and find the best prices. In terms of good economic housekeeping, there are positives to this, but the downside is where struggling customers choose food of poorer nutritional content just because its cheaper.
Longer term, there is the developing trend for more ethically sourced food, resulting from increased awareness of animal welfare, food miles, and the importance of local food to regional economies. One additional trend, which supermarkets need to take the lead on, is to put high quality, nutritious but ‘ugly’ fruit and veg back onto the shelves. There is a place for misshapen and slightly blemished produce – good for affordability, and good for reducing waste.