/ Food & Drink, Money

The real cost of food – do you put anything before price?

We’ve recently seen news reports of the drought affecting the US harvest, which could potentially affect global food prices. This highlights how events in one part of the world can impact our weekly food shopping.

Over the last few years, food prices have been volatile. This has also come at a time when many people are feeling their finances squeezed.

The reasons for price rises are complex – in the case of the US drought, extreme weather (which is becoming more of a problem as a result of climate change) means crop failures and less supply. At the same time, an increasing global population with changing eating habits means that there’s also a lot more demand for the world’s food.

Our food production needs ‘fundamental changes’

Last year, the government published a ‘Foresight’ report on the future of food and farming saying that our approach to food production needed to fundamentally change. We must find ways of producing more food in a way that reduces the impact we have on the environment – for example minimising use of water and green house gas emissions.

How do you do that? Well, the answer’s not simple, especially as we simultaneously want to make sure we can eat healthily, reducing the high rates of obesity and diet-related disease.

Some of the stark warnings made by the Foresight report, such as the possibility of food shortages, are hard to take in when our supermarkets are still brimming with food from all around the world, pretty much all year around. But we could soon be faced with some stark decisions about the choices we make now and what that means for longer term food security.

Are food technologies the answer?

Some experts suggest that new technologies, such as genetic modification (GM) are the answer so that we can increase crop yields and enable crops to grow in places they wouldn’t normally survive. Others suggest that it’s time to embrace organic agriculture as a way of reducing our environmental impact.

As the GM issue highlights, new production methods could be controversial. But if food prices rise and our shopping trolley becomes more expensive – will we still want to give as much attention to some of the ethical aspects of food production? For instance, high animal welfare standards, fair trade and supporting local producers.

Of course, we could achieve some of our aims by simply changing what and how much food we produce – and a lot of what we produce at the moment gets wasted.

Join the Future of Food Debate

Policy makers are grappling with how to reconcile these issues. That’s why Which? is launching a food debate to understand consumer priorities for the way we produce food in the future. We’re kicking it off here on Which? Conversation, and we’d like to know what your initial thoughts are on these long-term food issues.

Is it possible to produce more food, reduce the health and environmental impact, and still uphold other priorities such as supporting local producers and ensuring animal welfare? Or should we prioritise one of these areas? We all want food bargains, of course, but what – if anything – would you put before price?


I am prepared to pay a little more for products where there is a genuine benefit and the marketing is honest. Here are a few examples of problems, as I see it.

Free-range eggs can be produced by hens that have very little room to move. I would prefer to say that they are kept in less bad conditions than battery hens rather than say anything more positive.

‘Quorn’ is mould, even though it has never said that on any Quorn products. It’s harmless mould and other foods such as cheese also contain moulds, and it is an impressive achievement of the biotechnology industry, and saves killing animals,but it is a piece of shameful marketing.

‘Contains no GM ingredients’ on a product label is not necessarily true. Unless things have changed it is difficult to confirm that foods do not contain a small amount of GM soya, for example.

Specialist food companies are often owned by multinationals, as Which? reported last year. For example, Seeds of Change is owned by Mars.

Organic food sounds great but there are a few problems. For example, organic cereals can sometimes have higher concentrations of aflatoxins than conventional cereals, and aflatoxins are really nasty materials to be eating. The low yield of organic crops means more land has to be used to produce the same amount of food.

For me, that does not leave much more than Fairtrade products, and all I’ve ever seen in the supermarket is Fairtrade coffee and chocolate. Please don’t tell me that there are problems with Fairtrade products. 🙂

Price is not the sole determinant in a food purchase. Taste is particularly important and this actually has a problem when growers and distributors are concentrating on long shelf life. It would be nice to think that you can get good taste but if the priorities are early ripening , robust skin, ease of harvesting – all of which mean more profit you can guess where taste rates.

We already have chicken breeds that are specifically bred for early slaughter AFAIR 25% earlier than “normal”.

It would help if so much food was not wasted . However there is a problem with “gastro-porn” on TV and the supermarkets and media playing the full panopoly of psychological tricks on a unsuspecting and naive public. I was a food taster for one of the ingredient suppliers to the food industry so have always had a reasonable amount of thought on the matter.

One thing that needs thought is that processed food is not necessarily actually better so the more dependent we become on processed food the higher the probability other problems in health might arise.

While the customer has the option to make a choice what they buy, most of us do not have the information to make an informed choice. Many will see price or taste as the main deciding factor, and sadly, advertising works.

The only sensible way forward is to impose legislation and standards on all food producers and do our best to keep up with developments.

Some of my thoughts have already been voiced, but there is no harm in repeating them.

1. We always buy free range eggs and poultry, although I accept that conditions do not necessarily match our idyllic picture of hens running around in large green fields.
2. I think the organic concept is largely mumbo-jumbo, and the nutritional superiority has never been
proved to my satisfaction. Organic farming will never feed the world.
3. We must embrace technology if we are to produce enough food in the world, having taken sensible, but not excessive, precautions. Eg GM methods have been trialled long enough to show they are not going to be a disaster to the environment.
4. We always buy as local as possible, certainly British if it can be grown here. Supermarkets still stock imported goods which are grown here. At least give us the choice.
5. Country of origin labelling is still too misleading. For instance, pork can be imported, given a final processing and packaging, and sold as “Produce of UK”.
6. On the topic of food waste, best before dates encourage this. Eg potatoes sold with unduly pessimistic dates, when the pack which consumers will buy to replace them will come from the same store!

Food needs to be nutritious, wholesome and as natural as possible.
The issue of world food shortages requires joined up thinking – looking at the wider picture.
Currently logistics in this country alone, feed at least 62 million people three times a day 24/7. It is staggering. If there was a food shortage, there would be both panic-buying and anarchy, a free for all – frightening!
I already see signs of this when our local supermarket reduces food in the late afternoons, there are usually people hovering around waiting for the price reduced food to be brought out and then there is the scramble, each person for themselves.
So for a satisfactory solution to be found many factors require to be considered: over-population, bio-fuels, food for animals and sharing space with animals, food waste, over-eating, greed and profiteering. You would also need to address the serious and ridiculous issue of politicians preferring to be persuaded by and comply with business lobbyists rather than putting the good of the people first.
You would need to address the issue of people viewing food as a hobby instead being sustenance for the body.
My wish list:
Food locally produced
No GM foods- prefer natural, organic, wholesome and fresh food.
No irradiated foods. I am disappointed that irradiated food is not labelled as such, though I understand why – not many would buy, having seen this happen a few years ago before legislation was changed. I suspect that irradiated fruit and vegetables is being sold – this can be seen by the way the food deteriorates in an unnatural manner.
No artificial chemicals in food, preferably. However I understand that that may not always be possible nowadays so reduce, reduce, reduce. Do we really need monosodium glutamate , for example ? Many people’s bodies are aggravated by these chemicals and react to them via health allergies.
I also find many foods over-sweet –despite all the tasters and supermarkets stating that people want sweeter food. I actually disagree. Supermarkets could reduce the amount of sugar by at least 25% and the food would taste better.
No artificial sweeteners. Decades ago I was tasting various (then)new artificial sweeteners for Which and after 3 days I became ill – so never again. I recently noticed that the local health store now sells multi-vitamins contain artificial sweeteners. Why ? What is the rationale behind this ? It is baffling.