Friday, 8 May 2009

Is cheap food acceptable?

Like many bloggers and food writers I went to the debate at the Real Food Festival on the Future of Food and have to say it was a bit of a wasted opportunity. With one exception (the corporate affairs director of ASDA, Paul Kelly) the speakers - Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, Raymond Blanc, Mark Barthel, director of the Love Food Hate Waste campaign and environmental campaigner Zac Goldsmith - were all of fundamentally the same view: that the way forward must be organic and sustainable. Speaker after speaker outlined the apocalyptic future facing us. No-one really provided any solutions.There was a bit of ritual supermarket bashing but no-one seemed to me to get to the meat of the subject which is how to feed a growing population with dwindling resources.

The figures are scary. There are 6.7 billion people on the planet now: there will be 9.2bn by 2050, it is projected. We need to increase global food production by 50-60% but it's more likely to decrease by a fifth and a quarter due to climate change, land degradation, water shortages and crop damage from pests,

I would have liked to have seen a more structured debate between two opposing views - Holden or Goldsmith, say, interviewing Kelly of ASDA then turning the tables half way through or two speakers actually offering a tentative strategy for tackling the crisis. (It was ill-judged not to have at least one woman on the platform, who, Goldsmith apart, were all white, middle-aged, middle class males. Or an academic who worked in the field of food policy.

My heart is with the 'real food' campaigners but my experience of trying to buy 'real food' is that it's often way too expensive for families on a budget. People end up in supermarkets because it's easy and affordable. They could go to cheaper outlets like street markets but many don't know how to cook.

If the Government really wants a healthier nation it needs to have a much more coherent agricultural policy and regulate the food and advertising industry much more effectively than it currently does. The supermarkets could do far, far more than they do now to get over a healthy eating message. (Look at those full page ads and spreads for their special offers in the tabloids - almost all for unhealthy processed foods).

Like it or not - and I suspect many of the people in the hall yesterday wouldn't - the problem will have to be solved by big institutions rather than small ones and until they change things won't start to improve.

What do you think? Do you think the problem can be solved from the grassroots up or by national or international institutions? And what needs to happen for things to change?


ramtops said...

One of the best things the western world could do is eat less meat - the amount of grain needed to raise, e.g. cattle is hugely disproportionate to the benefit derived.

But I agree - while organic everything would be nice, it's simply not feasible with the costs.

Jackie said...

I was also at the debate and did have a bit of a rant at the supermarket/food industry.

I don't think food has to be organic - but we do need to worry about sustainability. Agree with ramtops comment.

We need to get politicians involved. - ban junk food advertising, restore proper cookery lessons in schools with trained teachers and support for local food markets.Good quality low cost school meals would go some way to support families with ever growing food costs.The economy of scale would dramatically reduce costs and provide local employment

It is too important to be left as a life style choice for the minority of families that can afford it.

If you are interested in the school food arguments please check out my school food blog

Fiona Beckett said...

Agree absolutely ramtops but unfortunately it's not going to happen on a big enough scale to make a difference. Countries that are used to having meat in their diet aren't going to give it up - or only a minority is. Populations of increasingly affluent third world countries like China and India see it as a confirmation of their new status. One can make that decision oneself though and attempt to influence others. (Agree about local rather than organic though)

Thanks for contributing, Jackie. Your blog is great I'll put up a link. You might also like to see what I'm doing with students on my student cookery site

I do agree it has to start in schools and things are improving (at least I get the impression they are). If people don't know how to cook the drift to ever-more processed and unhealthy foods will never be reversed.

So far as agricultural policy is concerned I think policy has to be tailored to suit the situation you're in. What works on a small crowded island in a Western democracy isn't necessarily a feasible solution in a largely desertic country or a dictatorship. Very complicated issues, way beyond the scope of this blog (and this author, frankly!)

Maisie said...

I agree as well that food has got to be sustainable but also within the budgets of the masses.

Why do we need 6 or 7 different versions of baked benas for instance. One was good enough when I was growing up.

To encourage the farmers the supermarkets/buyers need to pay them a fair price as that is the starting block for sustainability.

The worst thing the governments ever did was to take the kitchens out of schools. As children no longer have the school dinners they often don't even know what certain foods are.

Our school does have dinners but they are transported in from over 30 miles away because that is the best option for a small village school with no kitchen and no pub which was willing to cook dinners.

Fiona Beckett said...

All good points, Maisie. Something needs to be done to persuade farmers not to leave the industry and that can only really come from the Government

James said...

But we're already starting to see one answer - the rise and rise of growing your own. Imagine a future where you grew your own food and created your own elecrticity - be it wind, water, or thermal. Maybe going backwards is the way forwards.....

Jackie said...

Thanks Fiona! Just had quick look at Beyond Baked Beans - looks great! Have bookmarked it for my eldest son.

I have been in touch recently with some American parents who made a documentary film about their struggle to improve school food in the US - "Two angry Moms" They talk about the need to raise the food IQ of their nation in order to have a grown up debate about the nature of food. Interestingly, in the light of your recent twitter RT Jamie O's people were very keen to meet them!

Am teaching tomorrow so will be sure to take my camera with me to take pics of the food!

James, I agree with your sentiments but there are an awful lot of families, (mine included)who lack the skills and energy to become self sufficent.

Maisie said...

Having nipped into Sainsburys this morning I noticed they are starting to "do the right thing"; all pork is now British and all own label crisps are now made with British potatoes so that is good for the farmers on both those counts.

Anonymous said...

I think big organisations are the problem rather than the solution, as per E.F.Schumacher "Small is Beautiful".The assumption is always made that large-scale agribusiness is effective / efficient whereas smallholding is not. There have been numerous economic studies showing that not to be the case. I don't believe anyone wandering around a large ASDA or Tesco with their eyes open can possibly believe that they represent a sustainable solution.

Allotment Fan said...


I doubt whether it would take much to improve your self-sufficiency skills. Have a look at

Is the reason why you lack the energy to do it, because you spend a lot of your life interacting with shoddy, bureaucratic, large organisations. I think what James is expressing is more than a sentiment

Anonymous said...

The short easy answer must be a resounding NO; but........
Many people are on extremely limited budgets, without land to GYO........(I can easily feed my family a weekful of food - lunch and tea for about fifteen pounds maximum if I used my local freezer centre).......
Before you all jump down my throat - am I advocating this??? NO
But before we remove cheap food we need to make sure that people have the ability to feed a family on what amounts to barely any money.
GYO is lovely idea....but you need space, and money to set up.... people on really limited budgets don't have this.
Supermarkerts are hideous....but in many towns there is no choice; or very poor choice outside of the supermarket.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's complicated.... the idealist in me says everything should be ethical and sustainable ..... BUT the realist in me knows thats a long way off.

Jackie said...

Allotment fan,

I didn't mean 'sentiment' to sound patronising - honestly!

I have no tradition/culture/knowledge of growing food and whilst I accept that I could learn it is going to be a very steep learning curve!

I have a very small back garden which I know I could fill with tubs but I will need to produce enough food for 6.

I do 2 jobs. The teaching requires lots of extra prep time so my down time with my family is precious!

In addition I do PTA stuff/womens community football projects which are regular time commitments.

I am trying really hard to persuade schools to start growing projects and to bring in local experts to advise so that in the future childsren will feel more confident about growing stuff.

Maybe I could start really small and have a go at growing one thing that is easy? Will look at RHS site

I would feel happier bartering though! Maybe someone else can grow food for me and I could swap it for some cooking/childcare /teaching?

Fiona Beckett said...

Whoah! Have been away on business for a couple of days and see that everyone's been piling in. Difficult issues Anonymous and Allotment Fan to which I think there are no easy solutions.

The reason I say what I do about big organisations is that though they are highly resistant to change they do adapt to public opinion. And are effective communicators. If supermarkets stopped their double page spreads for example promoting discounts on cheap unhealthy foods they could contribute significantly towards improving the nation's health. If ads from the large food manufacturers were more tightly regulated and carried Government health warnings that would have even more of an impact.

Growing your own is absolutely worthwhile for those who have space and time but difficult to do on sink council estates in particularly cold parts of the country. In a national emergency like the war we'd have to do it again though. If the Government really got behind it it might work but I still don't think is the whole answer.

The big issue I think, and it's one Jamie has grabbled with, is what do people who are hard up, go out to work and don't have much in the way of cooking skills do to feed their families reasonably healthily. Realistically they're going to go to supermarkets and discounters whose sourcing policies may not be particularly ethical. The focus has to be on giving people skills and regulating supermarkets more effectively. Is this a Government priority. I'd say no, but it should be

Allotment Fan said...

Todmorden is having a go at becoming entirely self-sufficient in vegetables:

I doubt whether everyone there has a large back garden.

There are various schemes in which people share garden space in return for produce. Have a look at:

I didn't mean to make you feel guilty about not growing your own Jackie. I just wanted to suggest that if you didn't have to spend so much time dealing with government targets, bureaucracy and form-filling (which I gather is now the case for most teachers) then you might have a bit of time (and energy) to have a go.

Fiona Beckett said...

Thanks for posting those links Allotment Fan. Very interesting

Helen said...

I agree with ramtops - less meat (and all animal products) is the way forward. And less waste.

I eat vegan 90% of the time, it suits me, helps the planet and is cheaper. And is better for animal welfare, I do not believe that it is wrong to kill animals for food, but I do think that it is wrong to factory farm them. If you cannot afford say free range eggs for baking then leave them out, using oil instead of fat.

The ony thing we can do is educate ourselves and try to educate others.

Unknown said...

Hi Fiona,

The sustainability issue is a complex one, and I think it's great that you've brought it up as it relates to families and their very real, and limited, budgets.

My husband and I do grow our own vegetables, buy from farmer neighbors to supplement, have chickens for eggs, and are now raising some meat chickens as well, but this is not terribly practical for the majority of people. Add to that, we still buy from the grocery store, even with a large kitchen garden and chickens in our yard. Part of this is that we live in a cold climate so fresh vegetables won't grow year-round, but even if our climate was conducive to year-round growing, we still wouldn't be able to source all that we need ourselves on our property.

We do eat less meat now than we had in the past, but I agree that meat at every meal has become a habit that will be hard for the average person to break. Not everyone is as focused as we posting here are on food issues and food budgets, and won't be until there is a major crisis that impacts them - and their dinner plates - directly.

In the U.S., there is a movement toward "yard-sharing", which is wonderful, though, again, this is only for those who have the time or the ability to do the physical work to grow communal food. This site has resources for setting up to do this, both in the U.S. and elsewhere:

I also thought you'd find this article from the New York Times regarding food waste interesting. Disturbing, yet interesting.

Thanks for the great post.

Anonymous said...

I was at that debate too and yes, totally agree: five white middle-class men on stage is not a good look!

I like your idea of how to get more out of a debate - I would welcome less opinion and more practical solutions, indeed-y.

I think the answer to affordable sustainable and healthy eating is having info on a) nutrition and b) how to cook.

Which ties in nicely with Jackie's work in schools - thank you J and keep up your fantastic work!

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention!

Do drop in and visit my blog on being a judge at the Real food festival...

Fiona Beckett said...

More good links for those following this thread - many thanks. I very much enjoyed (if that's the right word) the New York Times piece, Amy - welcome to the blog - and yard-sharing is an interesting concept. My son and daughter-in-law in fact share part of an allotment with some neighbouring friends.

This is a problem that needs to be tackled on so many levels and to which there are no easy answers. I was thinking the other day it's a bit like bringing up children - you don't always get it right, you are occasionally inconsistent but you do your best.

If all of us ate less meat, as some of you have suggested that would certainly help but it's a habit that's hard to break and one which the Government is extremely unlikely to discourage. (Just as it wouldn't say people should give up their washing machines and dishwashers to save energy). All difficut, difficult . . .

Unknown said...

Hi Fiona,

Thank you for the welcome. I've been reading your blog for a while, but this particular issue is one that I've been grappling with, and
I think that your parenting analogy is a good one. We all try our best, but there are so many different ways to come at the issue. Cooking on a budget seems inherently like a move toward sustainability, for you are more likely to conserve resources when you are trying to mind your finances. Of course, by "cooking", I mean actual cooking, not purchasing prepared foods and reheating them. It's a very complicated issue, and it's good that you've brought it up in the context of eating for less.

I'm glad to hear that your son and daughter-in-law are participating in a yard-sharing arrangement. I found the Hyperlocavore site through Twitter, and think it's one worth sharing, as the trend does seem to be toward people growing their own, but some people might live in a spot where they don't have a good network of neighbors or family and friends with whom to garden or trade crops at harvest time.

Anonymous said...