Crisis in the land of plenty

There has always been a scathing answer to those who appear over-concerned about food and the condition in which it arrives on their plates: "Lucky you, to have such abundance and choice. Save your worries for the 800 million people in the world who are threatened with hunger."

Yet food is becoming an increasingly problematic element in public policy. Regular scare stories leave consumers confused and frightened. We demand quality, but we also demand cheap food. Opinion polls constantly reveal that shoppers are guided by price. The industry responds with low-cost, low-nutrition ingredients with high shelf appeal.

But, in a globalised world, what we eat or drink individually has unexpected repercussions. A fashion for eating fish rather than red meat ends up wiping out entire species and disrupting the ecology of the world's oceans, as Annalisa Barbieri reports on page 22. Our expectation of being able to eat all foods in all seasons wrecks livelihoods and local economies, as Helen Szamuely argues on page 24.

The simple matter of feeding ourselves has never seemed so perilous. Food-related diseases are on the increase. The ready availability of high-fat, high-carbohydrate processed snacks is breeding a generation of obese children whose life expectancy is falling. Government advice to eat more oily fish, for example, has been followed by a warning from the Food Standards Agency to pregnant women and children not to eat shark, swordfish or marlin because of high levels of methyl mercury. The invocation to eat five portions of fruit and vegetable a day looks less of a panacea when research reveals that 50 per cent of the produce sold in Britain carries high levels of carcinogenic pesticides.

New Labour's response is muted. The party remains cravenly in thrall to the industrial food giants and supermarkets. The big five - Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Safeway and Somerfield - account for around 80 per cent of all grocery sales, a far higher concentration of retail power than in any other EU country or even in the US. The total turnover of the entire farming sector is less than any one of the top four of these. Profit margins are correspondingly elevated, averaging around 6 per cent against 2.5 per cent for major supermarkets in Europe and the US. Yet, in 1999, a Competition Commission investigation into supermarkets and prices found no evidence of profiteering, restrictive practices or monopoly behaviour. Hopes that Labour might take on the supermarkets were dashed when, soon after election in 1997, Tony Blair appointed Lord (David) Sainsbury, a significant party donor, as science minister. The government stance on genetically modified foods, widely distrusted by consumers, has unsurprisingly been to back "the findings of science".

The Curry report on the future of farming and food published earlier this year called for a more holistic look at the industry, and a strengthening of local food networks that could support small producers. Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, welcomed the report, but government action lags behind sentiment.

While supermarkets continue to keep food prices low, at whatever cost to the health of the nation and the survival of the small farmer, the government is unlikely to intervene. But the argument that food must be kept cheap for the benefit of the poor is a defeatist one. In effect, we are putting food producers out of business to subsidise low-wage industries.

The real beneficiaries of cheap food are not the poor. As the think-tank Demos argued in an important pamphlet earlier this year - Inconvenience Food - large out-of-town supermarkets favour car drivers able to make a substantial number of purchases in one outing. The poor also bear the brunt of the failure to link food policy to health. The country has divided into the "food rich", able to eat cheap strawberries all year round, and four million "food poor", with inadequate access to sufficient nutritious food.

Unless the influence of the large food retailers is checked, says Demos, food poverty will intensify. The report recommends a "fat tax" on advertising highly processed and fatty foods; a food advertising code of conduct; and the creation of a National Food Council to promote the interests of consumers and operate independently of the food industry.

There is little chance of action on these fronts while food industry interests remain so well represented on government task forces and commissions. But recurrent food scares and the increase in nutrition-related diseases are a warning of the perils of inaction. We need a rational food supply policy that nourishes rich and poor alike.

Who needs to know who Ruth is?

A survey revealing that British adults can name more characters from EastEnders than ministers has caused consternation. But, as John Gray reveals on page 28, celebrity is now the chief driver of the economy. We all benefit from Ulrika Jonsson's entertaining revelations, but there is nothing to be gained from knowing the name or face of Ruth Kelly (who runs the economy). Furthermore, soap stars are generally with us longer than politicians. Peggy Mitchell doesn't lose her EastEnders landlady portfolio overnight and start milking cows in The Archers. Her son Phil remains reliably nasty whatever the political weather.

We worry too much. The Victorians would surely have known more about Mr Pickwick than about the Chancellor of the day. And, as the late Iris Murdoch reportedly responded when asked to name the current prime minister: "I don't know. Does it matter? I'm sure somebody knows."

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