The meal deal

How long can we go on eating cheap, processed food that does us and our planet no good, asks Richard Smirke

“Everybody has a right to good food,” exclaims TV personality and celebrity gardener Monty Don, reflecting on a subject that he holds extremely close to his heart. “The immediate problem is that when you have times of economic hardship, as we have now, when everybody is feeling the pinch, there is a real temptation to go for cheap food, which tends to be bad food. And if you’re living on the breadline, who can blame anyone? We all like good value.”

A quick glance at today’s UK food retail market strongly supports Don’s claim. In the three years since the credit crunch hit British consumers, low cost supermarkets such as Lidl, Aldi and Home Bargains, which largely specialise in imported, heavily processed, cheap food, have thrived. In contrast, the once booming organic health food market, which had grown annually for 17 consecutive years and reached an all-time peak in 2008 when the UK market was worth £2.1 billion, has suffered a sharp decline, with the overall sector contracting by 13 per cent in 2009.

According to the Soil Association’s recent Organic Market Report, sales of organic fruit and vegetables have fallen by 15 per cent, while sales of fresh meat slumped by more than 20 per cent as cash-strapped shoppers turn to supermarkets’ budget ranges. Recessionary Britain, it seems, has lost its appetite for natural, locally-sourced produce in favour of cheaper, more readily available alternatives.

So what, you may think. After all, organic food is typically priced far higher than traditionally farmed alternatives. Well-publicised doubts over whether organic food actually contains more nutrients than conventionally grown products, as claimed in a controversial 2009 report by the Food Standards Agency, have also added fuel to the fire. It therefore stands to reason that sales have suffered, even if advocates such as Don make a compelling argument for organic ultimately representing better value in terms of nutrition and cost (providing you cook everything from scratch).

“We are eating as though there are about two or three planets.”

Unfortunately, it’s not just farmers or wholefood retailers who are affected by our preference for low cost eating. Campaigners for a more sustainable agricultural policy warn that by continuing to purchase heavily processed food in abundance all of us suffer, be it in the form of environmental pollution, climate change, world hunger or poor nutrition, obesity and the resulting health costs.

“In Britain we are currently eating as though there are about two or three planets – the Americans twice as much,” says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at the London-based Centre for Food Policy. “We simply can’t use the amount of land, water, energy – particularly non-renewable – as we’re doing and feed the planet equitably. If we look just at health, we’ve gone from premature death due to under-consumption of food to premature death due to over-consumption and malconsumption.”

“Most of the world’s food production is run by a handful of vast companies.”

“If you bought a car and you only bought the cheapest car going – one that was going to fall apart, that was dangerous, would probably kill you and will cost you a fortune in maintenance – no one would think that was good sense,” elaborates Don, who, in addition to his TV work acts as president of the Soil Association. “But we buy the cheapest food. The fact that it doesn’t do us any good, or that it involves slave labour, or the massive use of chemicals, or huge air miles, doesn’t get taken into account by people. It’s a very short term solution.”

“Most of the world’s food production is run by a tiny handful of vast companies – companies like Nestlé that have more power than most governments. This government, for example, has got vast food companies to advise it on health. The Olympic food advising is being done by McDonald’s, for Christ’s sake. You can think of example after example after example of insanity and it’s as though nobody is making two and two equal four.”

“Whether you look at the UK, Europe or globally, we’ve got major problems.”

A far better answer, say food experts, lies in a widespread overhaul of our agricultural practice and a move towards a more sustainable policy, curbing resource-intensive production and minimising waste. The alternative – simply doing nothing and persevering with the current UK food system, which depends heavily on imports, last-minute ordering and long distribution chains and is vulnerable to global price spikes – will result in a rise of global hunger, malnutrition and climate change, warns the Foresight Report on Food and Farming Futures, a government commissioned study, published only last week.

“Whether you look at the UK, Europe or globally, we’ve got major problems,” explains Lang, adding: “Ultimately, it becomes a question of policy.

“What sort of food system do you want? Do you want to eat meat seven times a day and ignore that 50 per cent of all the grain grown in Britain is fed to animals to make cheap meat? Food is the single biggest factor in European consumers’ footprint of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a very, very serious challenge.”

One small but significant way in which we can all make a difference is by supporting the expanding number of voluntary-run co-operatives, that not only sell affordable home grown, unprocessed food but are also credited with tightening community ties. A good local example is Incredible Edible in Todmorden, the delightful town on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border, which has been transformed via communal vegetable beds and food health courses to its residents.

Free foodbeds in Todmorden

“This is all about broadening the knowledge base in the wider community, so that we’ve all got these skills and the knowledge to take forward when we face what we think are going to be challenging circumstances in years to come,” says Incredible Edible’s Debbie McCall. In addition to Todmorden, well run food co-operatives also exist in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield, and just about every town and city in the United Kingdom.

“These sorts of things don’t solve all the world’s problems but they are a way to help communities and groups of people come together and work together in a really constructive and positive way,” says Helen Browning, director of the Soil Association, a membership charity that promotes organic farming and which holds its annual conference, Food and the Big Society, next week in Manchester.

Lang: a question of policy

Don shares Browning’s view that empowering individuals and local communities, coupled with a move towards sustainable farming on a mass scale, will help turn the tide.

“We’re all flawed and we all have limitations, mostly about money, but if we all do a little and we exercise those choices as best we can, then we make a difference,” says the man otherwise known as Montagu Denis Wyatt Don. “But if you sit back and say ‘well, I can’t do anything’ then nothing happens other than the rich get richer – and those rich are invariably vast corporations – and the likes of you and I suffer and our children suffer.”

Lang, however, believes that the initiative has to come from above.

“I want politicians to give us leadership,” he says. “I want them not to do it for us, but to acknowledge that they are tribunes of the people and we need them to help pull this together because at the moment we’ve got commercial anarchy. You can’t sell dangerous unfit food, but actually we’ve got dangerous unfit food for the planet being sold perfectly legally.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs declined to comment for this article but Lang is in no doubt of what measures the UK and other international governments must take if they are to effectively tackle the world’s food problems.

“The evidence all points in the same direction,” summarises Lang, who rejects the notion that simply switching to organic produce will solve the issue. “No technical fixes will resolve this. It’s systems change or bust.”

Main photo: Monty Don says everybody has the right to good food

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