Blog: Petah MarianIs food too cheap in the UK?

Petah Marian | 8 March 2011

At the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum today (8 March), a series of speakers were asked their thoughts on whether food is too cheap in the UK.

The influence GM could not be underestimated, with speakers repeatedly highlighting its importance in managing food prices in the future.

With panel members including representatives from the National Farmers Union (NFU), OECD, government and academia, the responses were varied.

"As a primary producer, I certainly think it is at that level, and I'll give you some examples of why that is. You cannot have that level of waste, if something is properly valued. I've seen red pepper lines with rejection rates of 40%, where I struggle to see a blemish. Food should be about taste not about looks. Food that is all about looks and presentation, then I'm afraid there is another agenda to do with food being undervalued.

Secondly, if GM was involved in other things such as cosmetics, or leisure industry, or something that made someone look a little bit younger for ten years, then there wouldn't be any issue about it. Because it's about food, we can afford to be picky, and that's about the price. And I think the silent majority are not finding their voice for this reason and that's why we're not getting proper feedback from consumers. As food prices go up, and indeed they will, we have to make sure they're still affordable for people who really struggle, and then I think we'll get different messages. So I think the future is going to be much more honest," said NFU vice president Gwyn Jones.

"I think that food should be primarily about nutrition, not about taste, and I think the silent majority of food consumers in this country are those people that struggle to afford a nutritious diet for their families, so I don't think that food's too cheap, I think we should celebrate that food prices have fallen. I think that it's a very unusual industry, what other technologically progressive industry claims that reductions in the price of their products are a bad thing? Think of every other industry where technolgy progresses, things get cheaper. And as a result of that things getting cheaper, more people can afford to eat healthy and nutritious diets," said Professor Richard Tiffin, director of the Centre for Food Security, University of Reading.

"Most people looking at commodity prices, would argue that for at least the next 20 years there will be substanitally higher food prices, for two reasons. One: there has been a lack of investment over the past 20 years, and you need investment now for what is going to happen in 10-15 years down the road, there has been underinvestment because prices have been too low. And secondly, if its true that there is a fundamental change in the way we do business in agriculture, a sustainable system is probably going to be more expensive than the current systems. But I would say those higher prices in developed countries would be a good thing as it would encourage investment," said Wayne Jones, the head of the OECD agro-food trade and markets division, directorate for trade and agriculture.

"I think pricing for consumers is difficult to measure, and it relates back to what proportion of income you're spending on food and how you view prices. But in general I think consumers do see prices as being too high, when retailers announce their profits, when manufacturers announce their profits, so that they don't necessarily see that they're getting value for money. But generally most consumers would complain about price rises," said Stella Walsh, senior lecturer of hospitality and retailing at Leeds Metropolitan University.



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