The era of cheap food is over but quality must now get better – Stephen Jardine

A few years back, I attended a good food conference in Glasgow. Speaker after speaker talked about the need for food justice and global sustainability and everyone in the room nodded.
Russia and Ukraine produce 27 per cent of the world’s wheat and 53 per cent of its sunflowers (Picture: Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)Russia and Ukraine produce 27 per cent of the world’s wheat and 53 per cent of its sunflowers (Picture: Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)
Russia and Ukraine produce 27 per cent of the world’s wheat and 53 per cent of its sunflowers (Picture: Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

At lunchtime, we paused for a meal that reflected those values and was heavy on the beans and pulses.

As the afternoon session approached, I went outside and was confronted by the reality of life outside the echo chamber. Across the road was big queue at the bakers. While we enjoyed soup made with brown rice and ten types of vegetables, 100 yards away was the best sausage roll meal deal with a packet of crisps and a fizzy soft drink.

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That is the difference between aspiration and reality when it comes to healthy eating in Scotland. No one wants to eat bad food but when your income is limited, so are your options.

If the missionary work of the good food evangelists was hard then, imagine what it’s like today when prices are rising at the fastest rate for years and the cost of the energy required to cook is also soaring. We are living through a once-in-a-generation moment for price inflation with millions on the brink of being pushed into fuel and food poverty.

For them putting food, any food, on the table at the moment is understandably the number one priority but for wider society the current cost-of-living crisis does represent an opportunity to change things for once and for all.

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Partly, we only have ourselves to blame. We’ve grown accustomed to putting a small proportion of what we earn towards what we eat. Our grandparents would have spent twice as much on food and in the developing world a far higher percentage of earnings goes towards diet.

We on the other hand have developed a taste for consumer goods and the food industry has worked with us to keep food prices down to let spending go elsewhere. They’ve done that by concentrating on ultra-processed food which makes up 55 per cent of the UK diet and offers cheap calories but little in the way of fibre or dietary goodness.

That intensive manufacturing model worked well… until the cost of raw ingredients started to rise following the 2008 financial crash. Then came Brexit, the disruption of the pandemic, and we still have to face the fact that Russia and Ukraine produce 27 per cent of the world’s wheat and 53 per cent of its sunflowers, used in cooking oil.

Consumers are struggling because the price hikes are being passed on directly to them but it’s time for the manufacturers to share the discomfort.

At Holyrood, we have a Good Food Bill going through the Scottish Parliament to try to end some of the inequalities. At Westminster, a White Paper is expected soon on Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy which called for the introduction of a sugar and salt tax at manufacturing level.

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We also need changes in corporate governance to ensure manufacturers commit to enforceable health and nutrition goals, rather than calories and cash.

The era of cheap food is over, the focus now needs to be on providing better food and just as the tobacco and drinks giants eventually had to take responsibility for their products, so food companies now need to do the same.

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