Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cheap food- at what price?

Yesterday The Grocer magazine marked it's 150th birthday by studying the prices of select items in relation to the prices paid in 1862- the study made for some interesting reading and tells us as much about life today as it does about life 150 years ago.

Incredibly back in the Victorian era it was typical for a family to spend a third of their income on food- something unimaginable by today’s standards where our food 'spend' has been eclipsed by our soaring fuel bills, the cost of running a car, insurance and even leisure costs. The cost of the commodities we buy may have soared but in comparison the cost of food has  dropped markedly and we no longer have to consider remortgaging the house if we want to splash out on a mango. 

In the Victorian area, aside from the things that could survive weeks at sea- almost all our food came from these Isles- so besides things like Nutmeg we were pretty self sufficient. This was of course before many of the developments upon which modern farming is built- the land was farmed as intensively as possible but without the pesticides, fertilizers, medicines, machinery and vast fields of today farming and the production of food was much more reliant on more basic things such as man (and woman) power, resourcefulness, a decent horse, good weather and a lot of luck.

It had lots of downsides; a drought or a flood could send wheat prices soaring and make bread a greater luxury and the high costs meant millions went hungry, many were malnourished and some starved. A burgeoning and increasingly industrialised population needed cheap food and farming raced to keep up with feeding all those hungry framework knitters.

Our countryside still had lots of farmland birds- but during the Victorian era their populations were already in decline- the trade-off between our wildlife and our need to feed a  predominantly urban population had begun- and it’s rumbled on ever since. On the plus side our great-great-grandparents probably didn’t starve to death but on the downside you have to travel a long way to encounter a corncrake.

And that’s sort of where we’re at today- the decline of farmland species continues, but instead of paying a lot for food, we’re paying a little- and for many of us it still seems too much. Acquiring food has become less about survival and more about begrudgingly paying yet another household bill- it’s a notion perpetuated by the supermarkets where seemingly low prices are emblazoned across our TVs, magazines, billboards, buses and brains in an attempt to get us through the supermarket door.

But when you think about it, when you actually break down your shopping bill, our food IS cheap- so cheap we take it for granted, we over indulge and  we waste it. Anyone who’s ever tried growing a few vegetables will testify that it’s not easy and it’s not cheap- yet we rarely stop and ask ourselves how some of these intriguingly uniform vegetables can be grown, transported, clean, packaged and sold to us for so little- and yet STILL allow a bumper profit for the retailer. If we did stop and think we’d realise it’s the farmer who is forced to produce something for next to nothing and share the burden with our dwindling birds.

So this year, lets try to make a conscious effort to think about where our food comes from, all of it. We’re getting good at being suspicious of cheap meat, and some of us have got better at checking how far our haricot beans have travelled, where our chicken was reared, or how our fish was caught. It’s good to scrutinise, in fact scrutinising your food is a good thing for UK farmers. British food is produced relatively near to you, and to a high standard.

Farmers that are paid fairly don’t have to scrape a small profit by damaging our environment. They’re also better placed to reverse this long-standing trend and help out our  farmland birds. Best of all if we ask the right questions, make the right demands, and where necessary pay a little bit more we can still have inexpensive food, happier farmers, and an improved environment- something our poor mango-deprived forbears could only dream of.

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