No such thing as cheap food - President's Blog - 8 September 2020

As we celebrate food production through Scottish Food Fortnight and ahead of Back British Farming Day tomorrow (Wednesday 9 September), NFU Scotland President Andrew McCornick contends that there is ‘no such thing as cheap food.’ He writes:

We hear major retailers battling with each other for market share and it is all done on the premise of ‘shop here because our food is cheap’. 

As a primary producer, I find this hard to reconcile with our business costs. Prior to the Brexit vote in June 2016, we were listening to arguments promoting great trade deals that would bring down the price of food as a positive outcome. 

The politicians also continue to ‘weaponise’ this basic need for all by making it political, the rise in food banks since the turn of the century being deemed a sign of failure.  It is, but not in the way they choose to portray it, as an inability to afford food. 

Food banks have increased by 1000% since 1980 (there were only a few pre 2000). In that same period, GDP in the UK has increased by 100% (Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan). 

Food poverty is absolutely abhorrent in this day and age whether in the UK or elsewhere. I do not believe, however, that this inexorable demand to have even lower food prices is a solution to the problem and certainly should not be the sole measure of public or consumer benefit.    

We, as the UK, currently sit third cheapest in the world for food prices in relative terms (USDA Euromonitor International).  The prices of milk and fruit as examples have barely changed for years and yet the consumer spend on food has dropped to below 10% from almost 50% of household income over the piece. 

Food is considerably cheaper now, in relative terms, than 50 years ago, so 'poverty' has little to do with it.  A cucumber cost 20p in 1976 – that equates to a price of £1.45p in 2020 yet you can buy a cucumber in most supermarkets today for 45p.

The food poverty being reported is a failure of Governments to deliver Social/Welfare policies effectively (£217bn in 2016-17 or 28% of total public spend) and should not be masked as food being expensive. It suits all Governments though to divert attention from their failings. 

In a recent position paper on a proposal to incorporate a ‘Right to Food’ into Scottish human rights legislation, NFU Scotland highlighted that there is far more that can be done to encourage and sustain the consumption of fresh nutritious food produced in Scotland. 

Whilst NFUS may not have expertise in the vast area of human rights legislation it is impossible, in our view, to have a conversation about personal food insecurity without also considering other goals like increasing national food security.

We need to be talking about locally produced, affordable food and, by affordable, that should mean that all in the food chain are receiving a fair return for their endeavours - producer, processor, retailer, purveyor, server - it is the only way that it can be sustainable. 

If the primary producer cannot afford to produce the raw ingredients of life because of market dominance by a few retailers or poor trade deals, then the basic food we all need is not cheap. 

Failure to produce food will undermine jobs, the economy and the environment and export all these outcomes to places that are not prioritising delivery of a sustainable and ethical food policy.  

Author: Andrew McCornick

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About The Author

Andrew McCornick

Andrew, who is married with three sons and a daughter, was born and brought up on a dairy farm in Wigtown. Andrew and wife Janice farm their 230+ ha unit with 160 suckler cows and 600 breeding ewes with a small herd of pedigree Charolais cattle. Andrew's sons farm a nearby tenanted unit which frequently provides replacement breeding stock for Barnbackle. For as long as Andrew can remember, he has been a member of the Union, and got more involved when the consultation for Nithsdale NVZ came out. From there he went onto become vice chairman of the Dumfries branch, and then onto his previous role of Regional Board Chairman for Dumfries and Galloway. He also sat on the LFASS committee. Andrew was elected Vice President in February 2015.

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