A leading organic farmer and campaigner urged consumers to pressurise supermarkets to change their sourcing strategy to reduce the number of miles products travel between gate and plate. Speaking at the Ludlow Marches Food & Drink Festival last weekend, Bob Kennard of Graig Farm Organics told consumers to ask their supermarkets more questions and favour products that have been sourced and processed locally.

Kennard claimed that nearly all our difficulties with food safety, which have been a recurring problem in the UK over the last decade, stem from the way we treat food and “our obsession with cheap food.” The current outbreak of foot and mouth disease highlighted the folly of long distance travel of food, he added.

Kennard referred to the steep reduction in the cost to a supermarket of transporting food around the world, citing the “worrying statistic” that the cost of transporting the meat part for a meal for a family of four from anywhere in the world to the UK had sunk to just ten pence (15 US cents). The result is that distance is no longer a serious element in determining the geographical origins of food when supermarket buyers source their product.

Not that Kennard laid all the blame at the door of retailers – it is shoppers who partly dictate the course of supermarket buyers when they clamour for ever-cheaper food. Over the past 20 years the proportion of average income spent on food has more than halved, falling to around 15% of income, while in real terms the cost of beef has plummeted 75% in 15 years. If one takes the view that you get what you pay for, food safety scares and poisoning incidences are the almost inevitable outcome, Kennard indicated.

Referring to the premium payable for organic food, Kennard suggested consumers look at pricing in a different light. Perhaps organic food, or other food produced to high ecological, animal welfare and quality standards, is not too expensive – perhaps ‘conventional’ food is simply too cheap? He urged listeners to think honestly about what they wanted. It is impossible to square the circle; we cannot have food produced in a picture book British landscape, protected from large-scale industrial farming and full of wildlife, produced without chemicals, with a local identity and fully traceable to the farmer… and “have this drug of ever cheaper food”.

Consumers who pay lip service to the ideals outlined above must be prepared to put their money where their mouth is – literally. They must be prepared to buy locally, support local shops and buy direct from the producer. If buying from supermarkets, Kennard recommends asking about the origin of meat – ask why regional meat is not available.

Other players in the food chain are just as important in influencing the course of the industry – producers, processors, retailers and government – but consumers too can have a deciding influence, and they were urged to deploy it actively and wisely.