Rising food prices are destroying our standard of living

From the Express, September 20, 2013

IT IS something we’ve all experienced in recent months when out shopping: anxiously staring at the checkout display as the price stacks up, reaching the kind of figure we used to only see on our pre-Christmas food shop.

When did everything become so expensive? The good news is that no you’re not losing the plot because the bad news is that food prices really are increasing rapidly, up 32 per cent between 2007-2012, according to the Government. During that period fruit prices rose by 34 per cent, meat went up 32 per cent and bread by 29 per cent, according to a House of Commons report.

August inflation figures showed that food bills are increasing by 4.1 per cent a year, nearly four times faster than wages. And things can only get worse. Research agency Conlumino predicted this week that food bills will treble over the next 20 years. By then our favourite cookery programmes may feature interesting things to do with gruel and pigeons we’ve found on the road.

A number of events are causing this crisis. It’s a cliche to call it a perfect storm but in this case appropriate – unpredictable weather has been the major factor.

On top of this there are global water shortages, new export restrictions in Russia, oil price rises caused by the Arab revolutions, the use of maize as bio-fuel and the turning over of farmland to Asia’s growing mega-cities.

Every day there are 219,000 extra people on Earth and thanks to successful economic development increasing numbers are consuming more and pushing up food prices.

Some commodities are especially affected by bad weather. Persistent rain and a freeze led to one of the worst British harvests in decades last year, with the apple crop down 30 per cent and animal feed costs up 50 per cent in just 15 months.

It is estimated the average British family would need to spend an extra £678 this year to maintain the standard of living that they had in 2012.

At the sharp end there have been significant increases in the use of food banks, while a survey by Netmums found that one in five mothers regularly goes without meals to feed her children. As fruit and vegetable costs are rising by up to 10 per cent a year it is also signifi-cantly harder for people on low incomes to eat healthily.

Much of this is out of the Government’s hands yet it has to be asked why ministers seem so slow addressing it.

Margaret Thatcher, a shopkeeper’s daughter and housewife, knew the price of everyday essentials and understood that for most people life takes place on a budget. It was part of her appeal.

Can we say the same about the current crop of leading politicians, the most privileged in democratic times? When Nadine Dorries described the Prime Minister and Chancellor as “posh boys who don’t know the price of milk” it was a jibe that could have equally been made at Ed Miliband, Ed Balls or Nick Clegg.

It is hardly George Osborne’s fault that he resembles a jovial 18th-century baronet laughing at a peasant who’s fallen in some mud but perception is important, especially when our food prices are rising at double the rate of Germany’s.

Britain is so vulnerable because it imports 40 per cent of the food it consumes. Worse still earlier this year a Government adviser on global food security warned that prices could treble by the 2040s and there may even be shortages in Britain.

Of course similarly dire predictions have been made in the past yet we have innovated, to such an extent that last year for the first time there were more obese people worldwide than those going hungry (an achievement of sorts for humanity).

But we may come to see the first decade of the 21st century as a blip and a wasteful one. Until the 2007 crash we had historically very cheap food and at one point were throwing away 4.4million tonnes a year, equivalent to £680 per family. We are back to 1998 levels of food affordability now and going backwards all the time, while housing and energy costs go up and up.

Can the coalition do anything? Aside from cutting taxes for the working poor, more land could be set aside to grow grain but Britain does not have much land. We could always withdraw from the Common Agricultural Policy, which according to the Taxpayers Alliance adds £400 to the price of average household food bills but we’d need to leave the EU first.

THE director general of the OECD’s trade and agriculture division warned this year that governments need to act now, otherwise “there could be a problem”.

This will most affect those countries where people already spend a very large portion of income on food, among them Iran, Pakistan, India and Egypt. Interesting times ahead, then.

Rising prices played a big part in the Arab Spring as they have done in previous crises, including the bread price hikes that led to the French Revolution and the famines of the 1840s that caused the 1848 uprisings across Europe.

While Paris’s poor starved they were told that Queen Marie Antoinette’s response was “let them eat cake”. She said no such thing but the story illustrates what discontent can arise when people feel that their leaders do not care that they are going hungry.

Most people in Britain now face a food squeeze – this Government must not allow themselves to be remembered as modern Marie Antoinettes.

What do you think?