Why does food cost so much?
Tomatoes up 45%, minced beef up 19% - Charles Campion uncovers the truth behind the rise and rise of food prices and asks whether the age of cheap produce is well and truly over...
As food prices rise and rise, it takes someone of saintly disposition to turn the other cheek and not get irritated. We have all been through this kind of anguish before – do you remember when the price of petrol first soared? To start with you try to kid yourself that it will subside, that when the price of a barrel of crude dips significantly so will the cost at the pump, but we know in our heart of hearts that when it comes to prices, what goes up, rarely comes down.
Now the spotlight is on food, perhaps the most essential of commodities and this year’s multiple price rises are starting to bite. For decades we have become used to farmers complaining about the weather. When it is not too dry it is too wet. Either way, things nudged along and, rightly or wrongly, British farmers got a reputation for crying wolf.
But this year the farmers’ gloom may well be justified because the climate is playing its tricks simultaneously all over the world. One of the most chilling examples is the global grain market, which can affect food prices across the board. Russia is a big player in the international grain market – last year it exported 28 million tonnes, but their farmers are battling a swingeing drought and the current harvest is down to 75m tons – 30 per cent short of last year’s total. When there was a similar problem in 2010, Russia imposed an immediate ban on all exports.
America is also ravaged by drought, with 60 per cent of the country classified as suffering from ‘moderate’ to ‘exceptional’ drought. In a single month, July 2012, the failing harvest pushed up the price of grain by 20 per cent. This position is not helped by the decision to divert some of the American grain crop to the manufacture of biodiesel.
Like it or not, grain provides the basic building blocks for many of our staple foods – the failure of the US grain crop could mean that a loaf of bread in Britain will go up by as much as 15p. The American grain market also dictates the level of animal-food prices across the world. So we are seeing the first signs of serious rises in the price of eggs, chickens, pork and beef – even the most pampered, ‘grass-fed’ beef steers will be fed some grain, and that grain is now significantly more expensive. Minced beef prices have risen by 19 per cent in the last year.
Until now we have been able to take comfort in the fact that things were never truly dire everywhere at once. A country afflicted by drought or floods could fill the shortfall in food by trading with its neighbours who may have been less harshly treated.
But 2012 changes all that. A wicked combination of extreme weather conditions has played havoc with all manner of British vegetables and fruit crops, too. Apples and pears will be in short supply this autumn – warm, early-year sun brought on the blossom and then a cold snap killed it; pollination failed and without it there will be few apples.
In April the land was too cold for the first waves of planting but by May and June we were suffering from drought and hosepipe bans. Then it rained. And rained. One day in July, a whole month’s worth of rain fell in the Midlands in a single day, leading to the sorry sight of farmers watching their precious potato crops disappear, and subsequently rot, under 2ft of water.
This year, salad tomatoes have gone up by 45 per cent. That’s because as well as too much water, the farmers have also had to contend with too little sunshine. This summer’s continually grey skies meant that the boffins estimate our tomatoes have had 10 per cent less light than last year and that means there will be smaller crops.
Prices are driven by scarcity, and vegetable prices march steadily upwards – garden peas are up from £1.19 to £1.22 per kg; carrots from 31p to 46p per kg; cos lettuce from 41p to 50p each.
If they haven’t already diversified, small farmers and market gardeners are wishing they had. Even mega-producers such as Hampshire’s Vitacress are feeling the pinch, with its largest farm only fully recovering by the end of August.
Small children everywhere will be glad to hear that Brussels sprouts have been hit particularly hard and the plants haven’t grown big enough to produce the large sprouts that are usually a part of autumn.
For the home cook, the outlook is challenging. It very much looks as if the farmers have got some genuine grumbles and it seems as if the rise in food prices is justified, even inevitable. There is no overruling the weather and it seems that our changing climate is the culprit and that the world must deal with the consequences.
The hope that things will ever ‘get back to normal’ is likely a forlorn one and higher prices are here to stay. Since the 1960s, concerned food writers have been proposing that we all place a higher value on food: selecting chickens that live a bit longer, have happier lives, cost a bit more and taste a lot better. Choosing a beef joint that comes from a traditional breed animal that had a good life and ate grass. Valuing those tomatoes for their taste rather than how they look on a supermarket display.
So the bad news is that food prices are higher than we’d like and are probably going to stay that way. This is not a conspiracy of the supermarkets or the farmers, but an unstoppable global phenomenon.
The good news is that everyone who has a sneaking suspicion that we were undervaluing the food we eat will now be able to see whether high prices change our attitude to food. There is still time for some good to come from these high prices… what if they made us all a little less wasteful?
Cheap and cheerful
Carolyn Hart discovers if it is possible to feed a family on £5 a day
When this book was first published it was called How To Feed Your Family On £4 A Day. That was in 1989. It’s now £5 a day, so the cost of feeding your family has gone up by 25 per cent in 23 years. Incomes, on the other hand, as most hard-pressed families know, have stayed pretty much the same. So it could be instructive to look at this plain, no-frills book, tactfully priced at a fiver and updated to suit the current economic climate – especially if you too have growing children to feed, or are trying to live on the tattered remains of a pension.
Bernadine Lawrence devised these recipes when her business collapsed and she had to ‘dismiss my chauffeur and sell my Bentley’. She had been used to spending £150 a week on food and in order to manage in these new straitened circumstances decided to ‘allow myself just £4 a day to feed my family and buy household goods’.
She’s now an active grandmother, which she puts down to the cheering fact that on her new budget she ‘found I could produce delicious meals, which were nutritionally excellent and cost very little.
‘There’s a Victorian saying,’ she adds, “the healthiest feast costs the least”, and it still rings true today. In order to stay within budget, it’s necessary to eat less red meat and more beans and pulses, which turns out to be healthier anyway.’
She’s got lots of tips and handy hints on staying within budget too. ‘Plan meals as a weekly whole’ is one of them… ‘so a week’s worth of meals can be made from one main ingredient.’ It’s the cost-per-wear school of cookery – a pot roast, for instance, can turn up again and again in several different guises, such as sandwiches, stir-fries and soups.
Lawrence has also provided lists of store-cupboard staples, notes on shopping (‘keep a shopping purse’, ie, one used strictly for groceries), ways to use up leftover ingredients, a seasonal guide and a typical weekly shopping list – this indicates that you’ll be making your own bread and not drinking any wine. Perhaps that’s one contributory factor in feeling better on a budget…
How To feed Your Family For £5 A Day by Bernadine Lawrence (HarperCollins, £5).
Daily tip from the lady archive
“THERE is great satisfaction to be had in properly ironed garments that look as if they have just come out of the shop window.”The Lady. You Can’t Iron? 19th February, 1953