In defence of cheap food
The horsemeat scandal in Europe has led many of the usual suspects to question the wisdom of cheap food and/or our ‘industrialised food system’. In reality, our food isn’t cheap enough and the food system isn’t industrialised enough.
There has been no more explicit condemnation of both than in an editorial in the Guardian on 15 February. The article starts off with a quick summary of the ills supposedly brought upon us by our food system: it has created an obesity crisis and ‘practically guarantees fraud’ with the incessant drive to shave costs. In turn, these food products are ‘eaten by people hooked on cheap, easy and overly plentiful food’. And we are all to blame, too, because ‘government, consumers, supermarkets and food manufacturers are all complicit in a process which has impoverished our diet while pretending to enrich it’.
It is testament to the screwed-up nature of the debate about food that cheap, easy and plentiful food is regarded as a scandal. The Guardian editorial is also a graphic example of the low regard in which many foodies hold both mass production and mass consumption. ‘All the actors are locked into a system which, because of competition, globalisation, the search for profits and our human enjoyment of tasty, fatty and sugary foods, is hard to change.’ The dumb masses are willing victims of the way in which Big Food gives us tasty appealing but cheap and nutrition-lite food.
The food writer Graham Harvey is approvingly quoted when he complains that in supermarkets ‘few of the food items are even recognisable as farm products’. Presumably, Harvey skips past the large selection of fruit and veg to be found at the front of every supermarket and past the aisles of meat, fish, cheese and other dairy products, eggs, oils, canned fish and vegetables, spices and herbs to obsess about the ready meals and other convenience foods.
The truth is that supermarkets have provided the vast majority of the population with access to a range of foods that is quite unprecedented in British history, at affordable prices, open at hours to suit the shopper not the shopkeeper and where an entire week or more of groceries can be obtained in minutes. Only the idiotic and blinkered small-is-beautiful, local-is-best crowd could fail to see that this has been greatly to the benefit of consumers.
The industrialisation of food is not simply about producing economy burgers or bung-it-in-the-oven lasagne. By increasing the scale and mechanisation of farming, all those basic fruits, vegetables and other ingredients crucial for cooking from scratch have been made cheaper. Indeed, the biggest problem now is that we haven’t gone far enough. Why not properly industrialise meat production, for example, as has been done in the US? Clearly, there are some problems with feedlots, but nothing that could not be resolved while actually improving animal welfare and environmental impact.
Moreover, we need to get rid of subsidies, tariffs and other barriers to a truly globalised food system. If other countries are better at producing meat, grain, fruit and vegetables, let us specialise in what we do well and trade. Localisation will mean less choice and higher prices.
It’s time to take back the food discussion from the middle-class snobs and those with a political axe to grind or we will all - quite literally - pay the price.