Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Wow – someone's discussing food security

Owen Paterson has, rather charmingly, suggested that it would be a really good thing if people bought more British-produced food.

Now it’s not often that I find myself in agreement with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – a man who infamously stated that badgers “moved the goalposts” – but on this matter I am.

Although what he’s asking is rather more difficult than Paterson bimself might realise, for a number of reasons – not least among them, cost.

At a time when increasing numbers of British households are finding it difficult to make ends meet, food is often one area where people feel that they can buy cheaper.

It’s nearly a year ago that the horsemeat scandal broke and one of the points that emerged with some clarity was that the cheaper the meat product, the more likely it was to have been adulterated with something that was never listed on any label.

The consumer needs cheep food and, in order to continue to make profits, the company needs to cut costs as well as the price. Given that there were extensive chains of companies involved in the production of these products – all of whom needed to turn a profit – it can hardly be much of a surprise that someone in that chain decided to cheat.

In early autumn 2012, I spent a day with trading standards in Northamptonshire.

This was an area where the (Conservative) council valued the service provided and was trying to protect it against cuts, but it had already been reduced to a point where much work was being done by phone instead of visits – the logistics of a semi-rural county made many visits too time-consuming.

I was shown around the store of contraband merchandise that had been intercepted and impounded. There was no shortage of tobacco – mostly produced, it was explained to me, in China, and containing … well, just about anything, including floor sweepings.

There’s not a world of difference between that and the horsemeat fiasco.

The level of tax on legal goods such as tobacco is an issue – not least for those on low incomes.

But in the case of fresh food, tax should not have an impact.

There is a culture in the UK of believing that food should be cheap. How anyone expects quality to come at the least possible cost is an interesting question – food viewed simply as fuel, again –  but increasing poverty means that increasing numbers of people have little realistic choice in the matter.

There are also plenty of cases of people who need convenience food because they have no facilities to cook – and of those visiting foodbanks for help who can’t afford the money to fuel a cooker.

In none of these cases is it remotely an option to tell people to ‘buy British’, unless you’re going to be able to guarantee that the Brit option is the cheapest and most readily available.

Then there’s the rise of supermarkets – to the point where they now have 80% plus of the UK grocery retail trade – which is also part of the problem.

The knowledgeable butcher who would supply cheap cuts as well as prime ones, the corner shops and the independent general stores that would stock local produce have, if not entirely disappeared, been hammered into endangered species status.

Many people have also lost the skills required to cook from scratch and therefore the chance to control more of what they eat – and then theres the related attitude toward shopping; that its best avoided as much as possible excepting the once-a-week stock up at some tin box you need a car to visit.

Add to that the damage that has been done to UK farmers and producers by the same supermarket behemoths slashing prices and forcing the cost of those cuts on to farmers and producers.

Joanna Blythman has written much on the subject. If you choose just one of her books to read, then pick Shopped: The shocking power of Britain’s supermarkets.

As I’ve illustrated a few times on here, supermarkets are not as cheap as they might seem – and this is particularly true when it comes to processed foods and ready meals.

Another related problem is the cultural shift in the UK away from seasonality. Both as individual and commercial customers, many Britons now expect strawberries and asparagus in December, for instance.

And the supermarkets, with their global reach and massive financial clout, are only too happy to oblige.

So we have a world in which asparagus sprouts in Peru, where it is draining the water supplies of local communities, and where carnations are grown in Africa and flown to places where people will die without a water-guzzling bloom grown out of its natural season and habitat.

Quinoa, that most hip of foods, grows only in the Andean nations, but export is forcing up the price of what is a staple crop for local people. The export price had risen from $0.80 per kg in 1970 to $3.029 per kg in 2011, according to the UN.

And the UN designated 2013 as International Year of Quinoa in recognition of the Andean peoples that have grown the crop in the past and the present, through “knowledge and practices of living in harmony with nature”, and as an attempt to draw attention to food security issues.

Blythman also puts the sword to the wishy-washy idea that non-indigenous foods grown in the developing world for export is massively good for people in those parts of the world and therefore A Nice Thing.

No – you don’t get to justify munching Peruvian asparagus in January with any such patronising twaddle.

There are things we can’t grow in the UK – cocoa, coffee, lemons for instance. But in the case of the first two, they don’t need to be flown around the world as soon as possible after harvest. And lemons can be imported from our own home continent.

But much of what we import is in order to maintain all-year-round availability of seasonal produce.

On food security, it was also only last year that the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) warned that Britain produces less than two-thirds (62%) of the food that the country consumes, down from 75% in 1991. It called on the government, public and food industry to help.

Perhaps Paterson’s comments are that help?

A couple of years before the last general election, David Cameron told the NFU conference that any future Tory government would help farmers – by advising them on how to set up co-ops.

I don’t know whether this has been forthcoming, but this does seem to be one industry that – badger culling aside – the government is not realistically interested in helping, which is move away from traditional Conservative policy anyway.

Which point leads us to another interesting issue.

One cannot help but wonder how increased farming is going to be affected by the planned opening up much of the British Isles to fracking.

Surveys have shown, for instance, that much of east Lancashire is sitting on huge reserves of underground gas. It’s also farming country, and fracking has form when it comes to problems.

In just the last few days, four states in the US have confirmed water pollution from oil or gas drilling, while increased radiation has also been found in water and blamed on fracking.

This is in direct opposition to the claims of industry and some politicians that there are no dangers and problems hardly ever happen.

Fracking in the Ribble Valley seems like rather risky business – for the environment and for domestic food production. And obviously east Lancashire is not the only area that could be affected.

It’s hardly the actions of a government that is being friendly or helpful to its traditional allies in the rural communities.

So while it’s good to see people actually acknowledging that food security is important and needs tackling, however nice the sentiment, simply asking people to ‘buy British’ is not going to change a single thing – and most certainly not while the issue of low and lowering incomes, and the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ are such major problems for so many.

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