Joe Porter, Chairman of Staffordshire Moorlands Conservative Future, Parish Councillor for Endon & Stanley and a student at Keele University
Here in Britain and across the global we are experiencing unprecedented change in our consumer shopping habits and expectations. This has resulted in a price war across the board, including for the food we eat.
When we go for our weekly shop or a top up of mid-week groceries we expect value for money and convenience above everything. Buying British or thinking about where our food comes from is sadly not top of the shopping list for most of us.
Whilst all this is going on our British farming industry faces many challenges. Some farmers say that every day is a gamble and that they’re lucky if they are breaking even one week. Critics argue that farming is on the brink of disaster. Many aspects of the industry are no longer profitable, such as in the case of milk where there is an over-supply in the market.
We all know how hard our farmers work all-year-round; especially this time of year when they have just collected in the annual harvest. You would think that, for example, the more lambs or cattle a farmer raises, more profit they would return. Sadly, this isn’t the case; one farmer I saw sold a healthy sheep at a £20 loss.
In the case of sheep farming, farmers earn 30 per cent less than they used to due to global competition and many of us opting to buy cheaper New Zealand cuts of lamb. Whilst consumers are entitled to freedom of choice, this still seems a bit ridiculous. We produce more lamb than any other EU country and yet at the same time we also import more of this meat than any of those countries.
Unsurprisingly a fifth of us now buy groceries online every month. Our shopping manifesto is therefore about fitting food shopping into our busy schedules. Shopping online involves no tangible experience. Plus, because we as consumer are in the routine of looking for the cheapest options, we are even less likely to find out exactly from where the products we buy are coming.
The serious lack of awareness when it comes to the source of our food means that many of us do not notice whether beef is Scottish, lamb is Welsh or apples are from Somerset. We need to reconnect with buying British. Retailers clearly have an important role to play in ensuring that the vast majority of their fresh products are from the UK. They then need to be encouraged – or incentivised – to provide food labelling and use online marketing to display this factor.
Some farmers have adapted their business in order to survive avoid direct competition with the big supermarket chains. Those farmers provide a unique bespoke service where the emphasis is placed upon the journey from ‘farm to fork’. They rear and slaughter their own meat and then instead of targeting the mass market, they sell to a niche market, providing high quality flavour over cost.
Other entrepreneurial farmers have driven innovation to cut costs and improve productivity. By heavily investing in technology farmers can produce and process fruit on an industrial scale. One specific farm now produces over 150 million apples a year! This kind of scale is needed to compete in a global environment. Their 3D machine took 20 photos of each apple to ensure only highest quality apples are sold to the public. Cold storage was also used to enable an all-year-round supply of apples. Fruit might be a low tech crop, but it now needs to be produced in a high tech way to provide bold efficiencies that provide for the same high quality and value.
We need to consider changing our food shopping habits – which isn’t easy. The Potts family tried out this experiment on the ITV Tonight programme last night and they found that it was more expensive for some products, whilst it was cheaper to buy fruit and vegetables. But their shopping experience and choice was greatly improved, despite it being less convenient. They were able to engage in a conversation with the shopkeeper, enjoy cooking the food they bought and experience that ‘joy’ in food that they had previously lost. Most importantly, it made them consider the responsibility of how and where they shopped and how this all fitted into their lives and finances.
So what’s the cost of cheap food? The answer is that we now place price and convenience above where our food comes from. This makes us overlook the realities of hardworking farmers’ livelihoods being at stake. It also means that we often rush for the £2.50 whole chicken without looking at whether it’s from a free range or caged bird. We, as individual consumers, are the ultimate power base in this debate. It is down to the market – or us – to buy more local British produce. This spending power gives us the opportunity to clearly show our support for British farmers. Hopefully, many of us will start buying ‘Milk for Farmers’ from Morrisons – and other supermarkets as they follow suit – for an extra 23p as 10p per litre sold is given back to dairy farmers.