by John Stevenson / 23 Nov 2012
The weekly shop has become a more significant event in recent months, given the squeeze on incomes and the rise in food prices. And it is not going unnoticed by the consumer, the supermarkets, or indeed the food industry generally.
Shopping and eating habits across Britain have altered as a result. Some for the good – less waste, and more attention to what is being eaten – and some for the bad, with more expensive food leading to food poverty. It is the long-term trend, however, which ultimately will have the greater impact on the health and wellbeing of the population.
Is the age of cheap food over? The reality is that no one knows. We undoubtedly have issues arising from poor harvests, both in the UK and worldwide, and there is a growing global population that needs to be fed. Internationally, eating habits are changing, tending towards more meat and other more intensely produced foodstuffs. These issues alone could be contributing to a long-term trajectory of rising food commodity prices.
However, alongside this, there are developments and trends which could potentially alleviate such price increases. At the most basic level, we need to ensure that our farming industry is as efficient as possible, that it produces high yields and maximises take from the fields. And to support a higher yield, the industry needs to continue to develop food technologies – this is likely to become more significant in the next few years.
The industry itself can also help ensure that there is a competitive food market. In my experience, the food manufacturing sector acknowledges these difficult economic times and the reality, at least in the short term, of the rising cost of basic food products such as wheat and potatoes. However, it does, and must, continue to look for other ways to help reduce the cost of consumables by researching things such as energy use, the reduction in waste both during production and in packaging, and being innovative with new products and with manufacturing processes and systems.
Then, of course, there is us, the consumer. It's hard to believe that each year over seven million tonnes of food are wasted in the UK – and, worst of all, that a substantial part of that wasted food is not even removed from its packaging. In an age where food sustainability is becoming increasingly important, such habits have to be discouraged.
Clearly there is no recipe for ensuring a plentiful supply of quality food at an affordable price, but it is incumbent upon the government to ensure that every stage of the food production process is working towards this goal. This means government working with farmers, manufacturers, scientists, consumers and retailers to ensure that Britain makes every effort to succeed.
While the immediate concerns seem to revolve around the affordability and availability of food, one issue that should not be overlooked, or ignored, is that of a healthy, balanced diet.
Ironically, one potential benefit of increased food prices is that consumers, especially those shopping for families, take more care in choosing products and look to purchase ingredients which they then can cook themselves. This often results in a nutritionally beneficial diet. There is a sizeable section of our society that does not eat as healthily as it should, so any change brought about by front-of-package labelling, or by consumers taking more care about what they buy, will be marginal rather than fundamental.
To make long-lasting changes to an individual’s eating habits requires education, and an understanding of what a balanced diet entails is the critical issue to ensuring good eating. Poor food choices affect all sections of society, though it becomes more apparent in the poorer, less well-educated group, where the issue is often exacerbated.
It's often said that education is the best tool for improving social mobility, increasing people's life chances in terms of careers and opportunities. Quite simply, it is also the best tool we have for improving our diets and wellbeing. As a politician once said, the three most important things are, “Education, Education and Education".
John Stevenson is Conservative MP for Carlisle and chair of the APPG for food and drink manufacturing