Britain’s love affair with cheap food could be coming to an end

Another victim of (Borough) Market forces … laFeba, CC BY

Political wrangling over food prices has a long history, and a difficult future. We have become used to ever-cheaper food, but a closer look at what’s happening shows that what we buy and how much we pay for it marks out inequalities in society perhaps more effectively than anything else.

Among the many vicious policy battles which have peppered British politics, the fight over food prices in the early 19th century has perhaps left one of the strongest legacies. For decades the battle-lines for and against the pursuit of cheap food dominated UK national and imperial politics before the Repeal of the Corn Laws was passed in 1846.

This split political and social classes. Initially dominant were the landowners who had got the Corn Laws to impose tariffs on imported grain at borders two decades earlier. They wanted to maintain high corn prices, keep cheap food out and protect their estates. Against them were the new industrial, urban classes – both owners and workers – who saw this as the old order, out of tune with the needs of new urban existence. The bosses wanted cheaper food to keep wages down, the workers just to live more cheaply.

This debate still rumbles, 170 years later, not least since the 2007-08 doubling of world commodity prices reversed the long decline in UK food prices. Since then, food prices have been volatile and risen above wages, leading to intense political interest in the cost of living squeeze. Food prices have featured centrally in the demands for a “living wage” (itself a 19th century term), and inspired the growth of campaigns designed to embarrass governments that have done little to alter the massive income inequalities that now characterise the UK economy.

Price war

Our work for the Food Research Collaboration (FRC), a new partnership of academics and civil society organisations, has focused on food prices as part of efforts to produce research which can help charities and non-governmental organisation (NGOs) do their work. The briefing paper UK Food Prices – cooling or bubbling? was designed to answer questions about where the money goes.

The first conclusion to draw is that the issue of food prices and living standards is unlikely to go away, not least since environmental and health factors are set to drive prices up further. Not without reason. The cost of health and environmental damage is dumped onto the government, or rather taxpayers, as a previous FRC report written by a coalition of NGOs and the Centre for Food Policy summarised in July.

The new briefing paper uses official government data to show food prices have risen faster than the price of other goods in recent years. And food prices are now above levels seen in the majority of pre-2004 accession EU countries. The UK government has breathed a sigh of relief that food price inflation has cooled a bit in the past six months, but it ignores the fact that overall prices continue to rise at their peril. Food prices rose by 2% in the year to January 2014, much more than average wages.

Has Jamie failed? Suzie Katz, CC BY-SA

Whether prices are low or high is ultimately a relative question. Compared to other developed economy states, UK food prices are higher. Compared to Sub-Saharan Africa, they are lower. Compared to the 1940s here, however, UK food expenditure is low.

Food now accounts for approximately 9.3% of total household expenditure in the UK, a much reduced percentage from the 34% spent on average in 1946. Indeed, it can be argued food has become too small a part of the household budget and that, despite the popularity of TV food shows and celebrity chefs, food is culturally hard-wired as “fuel”.

Is this the lasting success of the Repealers? Yes and no. Food pours out of supply chains. The world and Britain is awash with it. Welcome to the permanently eating economy. We British spend proportionately the second lowest amount of all the 28 EU member states. Only Luxembourgers for some reason spend less of their income on food than us.

Food inequality

Something a few wise critics of the 1820s-40s Corn Laws debates foresaw was that, whether prices were high or low, the poor would pay more. Today, the average spend on food each week is about 9% of disposable income but the rich spend only 8% of their much larger income while the lowest income decile pay over 15% of their smaller income. In food terms, this means the richest 10% of Brits spend £88.45 per household each week on food while the poorest 10% spend only £29.15 per household per week.

Is it any wonder, the gap between rich and poor in life expectancy has risen? As a report to the Mayor of London recently stated, the life expectancy in poshest wards of Kensington & Chelsea is more than 90 years, while in poorer Nunhead in Southwark it is closer to 70 years. Sir Michael Marmot has memorably summarised his team’s decades of studies into the social determinants of health as one year lost for life expectancy for each tube station travelled eastward from Oxford Circus.

Are politicians responding to this situation? Not really. They’re leaving it to “market forces” when those forces have been structured to create this situation. Tony Blair welcomed WalMart, the world’s biggest food retailer (by sales), when it bought Asda in the 1990s. This would heat up competition, New Labour argued. It didn’t actually, not least since Asda already emulated WalMart’s business model: massive out-of-town stores needing car access, big brand ultra-processed food rather than real, simple, fresh food that is the hallmark of health.

To politicians that want food to become endlessly cheap then it falls to the German discounters, Lidl and Aldi, to do the dirty work. Their model is slightly different: small range, in-town, mostly processed but fresh too. Both models are premised on massive retail buyer power squeezing processors and growers. This isn’t good news, either.

UK home-grown food production has been slowly declining for years and is now back to 1945 levels; about two-thirds of the food consumed is grown here. Fair enough for bananas, but apples and pears? Salad crops? And what about the things that really need to happen to British food: reduce dairy and meat; build exercise into daily life; massive increase in vegetables and fruit; or big cuts in sugary, fatty, salty foods – what the Brazilian nutritional epidemiologist Carlos Monteiro has termed “ultra-processed foods”. Avoiding these is now the central message of Brazil’s remarkable national dietary guidelines, launched a couple of months ago. Britain’s need overhauling, too.

Looking ahead, the UK public has got to be aware of pressures inevitably driving food prices up. Politicians ought to lead a national debate on how to pay for the health and environmental costs due to food. And we need to debate whether food is too cheap, but also how to protect people on low incomes. Their wages and incomes need to go up so that they too can afford decent diets. That means taking on, among other low-waged sectors, the food industry itself. So what’s stopping them?