Defra published its conclusions on its Green Food Project last week. The aims of the project were to “bring together Government, industry and environmental partners to reconcile how we will achieve our goals of improving the environment and increasing food production.” Or, as the Defra press release put it rather more glamorously, “A major study into how Britain’s entire food system must change to keep food affordable without destroying nature, at a time of soaring world population growth.”
The report itself makes interesting reading and the project has undoubtedly got some admirable and ambitious aims, not least when it comes to farmers. Here’s what I mean:
We want to ensure that our business structures, markets and supply chains are operating fairly and effectively to support high levels of growth and sustainability.
That’s really welcome news, not least for the beleaguered dairy farmers fighting to be paid at least the cost of production for their cows’ milk.
But the report and the press release admits that a fair and sustainable food industry is likely to impact on food prices. Here’s just one quote from the report: We also need to be prepared for the effect that changing food commodity prices will have on the affordability of food for the consumer.
It’s right to say that our food needs to become fairer and more sustainable, but we also have to consider what that means for those on low incomes. The number of people having to turn to food banks is already rising. In 2011-12 Trussel Trust food banks fed 128,687 people nationwide, 100% more than the previous year. How might those figures change in years to come if food prices rose?
The report focused principally on what food producers and the food industry could do to make food sustainable and keep it affordable, but many commentators in Leo Hickman’s Eco audit for the Guardian were concerned about the narrowness of this. Of course, broadening out what can be done makes you realise what a huge societal shift we might need.
Sue Dibb of the Food Ethics Council and Clare Oxborrow of Friends of the Earth welcomed the report’s coverage of food consumption and waste but pointed out that we didn’t need necessarily need to increase food production, we just need to ensure it was distributed and used more efficiently.
The Vegan Society (as you’d expect) pointed to the problems caused by our high meat consumption.
But perhaps most tellingly of all, were the commentators that pointed out that the food industry might be part of the problem, not the solution.
Jay Rayner pointed out that one major stumbling block to a sustainable industry was the one group not mentioned. There is one word missing from the main conclusions: the word ‘supermarket’ is nowhere to be found…our self-sufficiency in this country has dropped from north of 70% over the past 20 years to just above 50%. One of the main reasons for that is the constant bullying pressure on price by the supermarkets which is forcing farmers to leave the industry. And as dairy farmers know, it isn’t just the supermarkets who “bully” on prices: any large company will.
And the Soil Association had similar concerns about the supply chain. “The other key change is that we start buying more food direct from producers. You can get an organic box delivered to your house, with good quality organic fruit and vegetables, which research by Riverford shows will routinely be around 20% cheaper than the equivalent organic products in all the big supermarkets, and often at a similar price to those supermarkets’ non-organic fruit and veg. This reflects the fact that the farm-gate price of many organic products is often the same as non-organic, but a lot of cost, and presumably profit, seems to get added along the chain before someone picks an organic product off the supermarket shelf.”
So let’s welcome the report and its aims. But let’s also bear in mind that it was looking at how the industry needs to change to become more sustainable. Should we in fact be thinking “outside the box” and to a different way of shopping, cooking and eating and to a completely new type of food industry?