Food is too cheap and too expensive?
Greens say cheap food encourages waste. Poverty campaigners rail against rising prices. Both miss the point.
Earlier this month, Jan Kees Vis, the global director for sustainable sourcing development at Unilever, told the CropWorld 2012 conference in London that food was too cheap encouraging waste. ‘Places that offer food for lunch – chilled, day-fresh [food] – have made incredible growth, but the result is a lot of food is wasted’, he said. ‘A big factor in why we waste so much food is that food has become too cheap. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t waste so much of it.’
On Monday, a report on the Guardian website suggested that Britain is in ‘nutrition recession’. The article begins: ‘Austerity Britain is experiencing a nutritional recession, with rising food prices and shrinking incomes driving up consumption of fatty foods, reducing the amount of fruit and vegetables we buy, and condeming [sic] people on the lowest incomes to an increasingly unhealthy diet.’ A related article about a fairly typical couple in Bristol, Nicola and Tony, illustrated the point. The couple have two sons but have just £40 per week to spend on food for the family, despite the fact that they both work.
There is some truth, and a lot wrong, in both of these assertions. It is true that allowing consumers choice and near constant availability of food means that some food will be thrown away. If we have a choice over what to buy and we want to be able to buy it at all hours of the day and night, then there will be more waste than if we had to make purchases well in advance and stick to them. But having such choice, I would argue, is a very good thing. It is a ‘luxury’ that comes from living in a relatively affluent and efficient society.
The real question for the Bristol couple and others is why they only have £40 per week to spend on food out of a gross income of about £500 per week. Surely that speaks to a number of other problems, like the high cost of housing. UK average house prices (after adjustment for the changing type of homes we live in) rose from £64,000 in 1993 to £215,000 in 2011. Even allowing for inflation, house prices have more than doubled in real terms in that time. This seems likely to be a much more important blow to household budgets than rising food prices.
In fact, the proportion of average income spent on food in the UK is lower than for any other European country but Ireland, according to this infographic. In 1971, food took up 21 per cent of UK household budgets. Now that figure is nearer to 10 per cent. So food is both relatively cheap in the UK compared with the past and cheap compared with other countries.
There’s another problem here, though. That is the idea that we should be eating ‘five a day’ in order to remain healthy. So Tony frets in front of the fruit and veg display. ‘Carefully choosing a small onion and a single floret of broccoli, he glances over at the peppers. “My oldest boy loves peppers. It’s the one healthy food he can’t get enough of,” he says. “But look at the price of them. We’d have to go without a meal just so that he can have a healthy snack.”‘
Poor saps. In fact, the evidence in support of the five-a-day mantra is pretty thin. Big studies looking at it, like the EPIC trial that reported in 2010, suggest that eating more fruit and veg by itself doesn’t have much effect on health outcomes. Yet struggling families like this one in Bristol are guilt-tripping over the fact that they can’t afford ‘healthy’ food. (This same obsession with ‘healthy eating = fruit and veg’ probably has a lot to do with domestic food waste, too, as shoppers buy with good intentions and then let all that rabbit food rot.)
This notion of ‘nutritional poverty’ has also been picked up by politicians. So Labour’s shadow environment secretary, Mary McCreagh, told the Guardian: ‘We need action to tackle what is an epidemic of nutritional poverty. We face a perfect storm of stagnant wages and high food prices at a time when the government is cutting huge holes in the social welfare net, and the impact will be felt most by the most vulnerable: children, women and the elderly.’
Instead of tackling ‘nutritional poverty’, why not tackle the causes of boring old regular poverty? How about building a lot more houses in places where people want to live, for example? But housing is just the kind of difficult-to-solve problem that politicians have made a habit of ducking. So instead, we get penny-dreadful articles and cheap political points about people going without food when the current food system – with surprisingly lively competition between supermarkets, efficient supply lines and wide ranges on offer – is actually one of the parts of our economy and society that is working pretty well.
But this juxtaposition of two different ideas – of food being both too cheap and too expensive – gives practical evidence of what greens want: to stop us from consuming. If that means making even basic goods like food unaffordable, so be it. If ever there was evidence of the underlying misanthropy of environmentalist thinking, this is it.