Is this the end of the cheap food era?

08 February 2022, 07:49 AM
  • We speak to Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trust, about the future of environmentally friendly food in the UK
Is this the end of the cheap food era?

The conversation around sustainability in the food and drink supply chain has picked up in the past few years, with more and more food industry players acknowledging that changes must be made to improve the sector’s eco credentials.

“I think there is probably not a retailer in the country today who is not mindful of the challenges of climate change and nature and the need to improve public health,” said Patrick Holden, founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust. “In the same way that retailers are thinking about these issues, so are farmers, and the best way for farmers to respond is to transition to practices which reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and farm in harmony with nature,” he continued. 

As agriculture and intensive farming have long been part of the problem, he adds, they must now “become part of the solution. But the question is how?” In the UK, a system of mixed farming, which moves away from chemical farming towards biological farming, is one answer, Patrick said.

“My definition of sustainable food would be food from farming systems which operate inside planetary boundaries, which address climate change, restore nature, and are healthy and health promoting. And that means adopting principles like the circular economy, avoiding chemicals and ideally, processed and distributed more locally,” Patrick said.

Despite sustainability being in the public eye as an issue that more and more consumers care about, Patrick acknowledged that this is not always an easy sell. “I think people want to use their purchasing power,” but he added, “I don’t think it’s going to be very easy because much of what I’ve said has price implications. It’s hard to adopt the kind of diet I’ve been advocating without having to pay more for your food.” 

Amidst a cost-of-living crisis, this becomes even more challenging. A recent survey revealed that the vast majority (85%) of Brits have noticed an increase in the cost of groceries, and 42% of households are expecting their financial situation to get worse this year.

But Patrick believes there are solutions available. “I think that governments can act to do something,” he said. “I think we’re reaching the end of the cheap food era, and we have to pay the true cost of our food. 

“We don’t want to inflate it; we don’t want people to be profiting unreasonably from producing proper food, real food. But what we do want is to pay the fair, true price of food. At the moment,” he explained, “the food that most people are buying in supermarkets is dishonestly priced. And by that, I mean that the price label doesn’t reflect the true cost of production, plus the damage that the production of that food has done to the environment, to climate change or to public health. If you add in those costs, the price wouldn’t look cheap at all,” he said. “So this idea that there are hidden costs behind our food is a nettle that needs to be grasped, and if that means we have to pay more for good food so be it.”

Despite the challenges this presents for consumers, retailers and producers alike, he believes the future is bright for sustainable food production. “I’m optimistic because I think there’s a wind of change afoot amongst the public,” he said. “I think all of us now are worried about climate change.”

Read more expert analysis on the food and drink industry’s journey towards a sustainable future with our free download, Sustainability: The Future is in Our Hands.