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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 09:04 GMT
Good food: Are we getting a fair deal?
A "watershed" report into food production and farming has called for reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy arguing the current situation is unsustainable.

The Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, chaired by Sir Donald Curry, recommends a sea-change in the way agricultural subsidies are dispensed.

It also recommends that supermarkets be encouraged to sell more locally-produced food.

The proposals have led to fears that food prices might be forced to go up.

Would you pay more for good quality food? Or is food already too expensive? Are supermarkets a rip-off?

This debate is now closed. Read your comments below.

Your reaction:

I already do pay more for my food, I buy as much of it organic as is possible. Not because I believe that the nutritional value is higher, nor because of scares that pesticide traces are found in foods (though they are genuine concerns). The reason I buy is because as this report starts to highlight, the effects farming methods are having on our environment. Conventional food may appear cheap on the face of it, but the price does not reflect the hidden costs and losses. Unless Britain takes steps to reverse its destruction of land fertility, we will be wholly reliant on others to feed us. Then we will probably see the true price of quality food.

Decent food, air and water are essential for our health, if I have to cut back in other area of expenditure to pay for these three things then so be it. If we want to improve standard of living then basics are where we should start. These essentials need to be subsidised to ensure all have equal access and not just the privileged.
Clive, UK

If farmers are getting a low price it means there is over supply.

Harvey, England
I'm fed up with farmers whinging about the price they get from supermarkets. One of the basic laws of economics is that supply/demand set the market price. If farmers are getting a low price it means there is over supply. If a few go to the wall to get the supply side down, then tough. I don't get a government subsidy/handout for my business - why should farmers? And I know the argument they are ready to use - other countries get subsidies. If that's the case than lets levy all subsidised food imports at the equivalent to the subsidy. That will level the playing field (I thought that was the whole point of the EU!)
Harvey, England

I would be prepared to pay more for food, providing I knew that the supermarkets were not making bigger profits, but that the money was going to our hardworking farmers. Most of the farmers that I know would be happy not to be paid subsidies by the government, provided that they were paid a fair price for the food that they produced in the first place.
Jonathan, Suffolk, UK

Well I must be in the minority, because I for one won't be paying any more by choice. As several correspondents have already pointed out, the real problem is that billions of pounds of hard earned tax money is poured into the bottomless pit known as the Common Agricultural Policy - an outmoded and outdated farce. Chris Klein is spot on - give us back our money and we will decide in the market place.
Dr. A. J. Davies, UK

My life was changed completely by the farmers markets here in the US. Coming from the UK, I'd never seen these, where the freshest seasonal food, at ridiculously cheap prices is sold in school car parks on Saturdays. The consumer gets the best food available, and the farmers make far more profit selling direct to the consumer. The only loss is to the supermarket, but can you feel sorry for the likes of Sainsbury's which has made excessive profits selling inferior food covered in unnecessary reams of plastic. As for those who say that the system can't work in the city. Rubbish! I live in downtown Chicago.
Ruth, USA (Ex-UK)

My wife and I have made a conscious decision to try and buy food that is produced in a way that is environmentally responsible (e.g. organic) and that is good for our health (e.g. not tainted with pesticides or steroids). We have also chosen to try and buy food that is produced locally which reduces transport pollution. Buying seasonal food again reduces transport pollution but also makes eating more fun. It does cost more but we accept this as the true cost of living and we adjust our other spending accordingly. Supermarkets do not really help us fulfil our objective. Much of the produce has been transported huge distances, polluting along the way, and is over-packaged. Furthermore many farmers are in the supermarkets' thrall, obliged to accept lower prices at the risk of losing their market, and the profits do not go to the local community but to the big corporations. Farmers' markets, more of them please. Iżm off home now to a lovely organic beef stew - all ingredients from a local farmers' market.
Jon Rogers, UK

If you want to keep locally produced quality products you need to support your farmers today or you'll soon go through the changes that farming has in the US. Something like 70 per cent of farms are no longer family owned, but rather run by large corporations. Is this bad? Not when a country is trying to produce food for its millions of people. Consequently the family farms that want to remain successful have turned to specialty products such as organic or variety vegetables and fruits that the larger corporations don't deal with as they are concentrating on massive scale wheat or dairy or beef production, etc. Considering less than 10 per cent of our farmers are under the age of 35, its apparent it takes a special breed of person to want to endure a life long career of physical labour with risks of weather and disease that can wipe out an entire season of work and profits.
Suzanne, USA

Our goal as local distributors is to get the produce to our customers within 24 Hours of harvest.

Brian, USA
I am a small scale organic grower. I also distribute local, seasonal organically grown produce for about 10 local organic growers. We distribute to local restaurants and retailers.

We all love what we do. We love the land the crops, we love food and we love life. Supermarkets are the antithesis. They are there to make money. "If it looks good some fool will buy it". That seems be the their attitude.

In California we are fighting back. Once people have tried local, organic seasonal fruits and vegetables they do not want to go back to pretty, pretty tasteless fruits and vegetables.

Our goal as local distributors is to get the produce to our customers within 24 Hours of harvest. The difference it makes is nothing short of incredible. The produce has flavour and nutrition.

It is time to get industrial methods and rip-off industrialists out of our food supply chain.
Brian, USA

Fresh local produce is always superior but alas not available year round.

Paul M, USA
As a British expat living in the USA I believe the general quality of food in Europe is superior to the majority of food in the USA. However, the study rightfully addresses some of the problems that make food bad in the US and they are it is a long way to market. This means many fruit are picked too early and therefore delivered minus flavour. We have to brown bag many items to get them ripe. Fresh local produce is always superior but alas not available year round. Keep up the good work Europe farmers. I enjoy my visits home every year just to taste your produce.
Paul M, USA

Some people should consider what many farmers really have to live on before moaning on about how much supposed subsidy they get. There some well-publicised "barley barons", but I know a family of farmers whose *entire family income* is around 4,000GBP per year - less than one tenth of what I, as a single person working in IT, earn. I would also question those who wish to see the countryside "return to its natural state". Our entire perception of our countryside is shaped by farming - you only need to look at a field of set-aside to see what it would look like without the custodianship of the farming community. Meanwhile, on topic, it seems you only have to look at the depressing contents of many consumers trolleys to see tons of frozen chips, ready-meals and processed foods to realise that it's a miracle that we get any good food at all. I work 10 hour days and still make time to cook properly, and haven't bought a ready meal in 12 years.
Nosher, UK

I have moved to the UK 2 years ago from South Africa. All I can say is that I am astounded at the amazing choice consumers have in the UK. Also, I have never seen the small organic sections of supermarkets run out of any items. There just is not much demand for it. Everybody is voting with their feet for convenience, lower prices and choice. This is what a supermarket brings.
Francois, UK

Unfortunately I have to buy the cheapest food that I can find

PhilT, Oman
I have four children to feed and, unfortunately I have to buy the cheapest food that I can find. My wife and I shop regularly at a supermarket and find the prices better than anywhere else. I also come from a farming area and the farmers always complain about getting a raw deal from the buyers (these days usually the supermarkets chains). I know the price farmers get for their produce is many times lower than what we actually have to pay at the supermarkets, but, realistically, in a capitalistic society, could supermarkets charge less and still remain in business? I would like to see farmers selling more of their produce through co-operatives. Then maybe we all could benefit.
PhilT, Oman

How exactly do prices go up when the overheads of transporting goods all over the country are removed? I would like to pay a fair price for food that is genuinely fresh. I have frequently turned supposedly fresh produce (with mould on it) into the customer services section of my local supermarket.
Dave Tankard, UK

Here in New Jersey, we have a "Jersey Fresh" campaign. Every spring and summer, locally grown tomatoes, corn, potatoes, peaches, and many other kinds of locally grown fruits and vegetables are available at many farm stands along the roads. Many of our local supermarkets also sell locally grown produce, too. I especially enjoy the pick your own farms around where I live, where I can go to the farm, and pick for myself what I need, when I need it. How much fresher can you get?
Linda, NJ, USA

We need to address the health concerns of modern production methods and not always go for bigger chickens

Ali, UK
Farm gate prices have been falling for years as supermarkets have put pressure on farmers to absorb price reductions whilst keeping the supermarket margins the same. At the same time food available in the supermarkets is either high quality, high price items or it is low price, dubious quality items that have been imported or grown in unsuitable environments. There is a huge public demand for more healthy, more ethically produced and more organic produce but demand is being met from outside the UK and as a result prices are too high for the majority to have a choice. My view is that we need to address the health concerns of modern production methods and not always go for more tons per acre or bigger chickens. We should also address where the margins are made in bringing food from the farm gate to the consumer - the current balance is not right. And finally, those that influence our view of farming and the countryside should focus more on the reality rather than the politics of the situation.
Ali, UK

I live in rural Spain, where I admit most of the food on offer in the village shops is locally produced and is of a high quality. The people tend to eat the fruit and vegetables in season and sadly at a lower cost than Britain. Quality food is available in Britain, but we seem to have become a nation living on fast foods and takeaways. It's a sad fact that as a nation we spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than many of our European neighbours. Perhaps that is not entirely our fault, because with the cost of transport, housing and so on we don't have the same percentage to spend.
Fred Crow, Spain

I always buy meat from a local farm shop where the meat is locally farmed. The quality of the food is far superior to that which you buy in a supermarket and it doesn't cost any more. In cutting out the middle man (i.e. rip-off supermarkets) the meat is generally about 10 percent cheaper. The same goes for vegetables which are a fraction of the price you pay in the supermarkets - as long as you don't mind washing the mud off yourself!

I would pay the farmers more for good quality food. I would pay the supermarkets less for providing inappropriate packaging for almost all food (plastic/cling film promotes rotting in fridges - what happened to thin brown bags?). And demanding 35-23-35 apples a la Hollywood blondes via injecting and spraying that once-delicious variety of fruit with God knows what is NOT providing a service to the public - it is setting up a health time bomb by exposing all our guts to dangerous chemicals. Local produce which is in season - is it too much to ask for?
Rhys Jaggar, England

Traditional farming is obsolete - it would have gone the same way as steel making, coal mining, shipbuilding etc. years ago but for the subsidies. It is time that the subsidies were stopped, which would lead to many farmers closing their businesses. A few farmers could remain for high value products etc. And the remainder of the land could be returned to its natural state.
Chris Cowdery, UK

Give people the option to buy cheap or buy local, and I would be surprised if many didn't opt for the local

Alison Mileway, Birmingham, UK
I for one would pay a little bit more for better quality food. As for preferring locally-grown food, I agree with this wholeheartedly. I regularly visit the Lake District, and make a point of buying local produce (vegetables, meat, etc) and it is so much better than the usual imported stuff. I pay more for this, but I'm getting more taste in return. Give people the option to buy cheap or buy local, and I would be surprised if many didn't opt for the local.
Alison Mileway, Birmingham, UK

With food, as for everything else, you generally get what you pay for. Many people seem quite happy to fork out for expensive clothes, holidays, cars etc but not decent quality food. Far better, surely, to say, eat delicious free range, organic chicken occasionally, than every day to consume watery, growth hormone filled creatures that have had a short and miserably crowded "life".

Having said that, I'm pretty sure that the supermarkets make enormous profits at the expense of consumers and farmers. Use your local farmers' market - at least you will know how the food has been produced, put more money directly in the farmer's pocket and the food will not have been flown thousands of miles (with its attendant pollution problems). In short, yes, good quality food may well cost a little more, but we should be demanding high quality and ensuring that more of the profit goes to farmers. Remind yourselves what "proper" food tastes like!

Hopefully we'll be rid of the CAP in a few years. This deal essentially forces us to subsidise European farmers for crops they've thrown away. The system is wide open to corruption and keeps our food prices artificially high. Even worse is the Common Fisheries Policy, which states that UK waters are the sole "Common European Resource". No wonder fish are expensive - there are only a handful left!
Russ, British ex-pat, Germany

If we are not prepared to pay the real cost of the food on our plates at the shops then we will pay it in taxes to subsidise and compensate farmers as well as all the less obvious costs to the environment that our current farming practices cause.
Gill, UK

I completely agree that we need a sea change in the way agricultural subsidies are handed out. These subsidies have little to do with farming in the UK (between 1990 and 1997 the 157,000 wealthiest landowning families in the UK, not necessarily those who farm their land received billions of pounds in subsidies). Until we reform the countryside, all farmers can do is farm more intensively and quality to the end consumer will suffer.
Bob, UK

Look at what is bought these days - the majority want cheap food that looks nice, not home-grown pitted apples. It just won't be profitable and we will import more.
Sandra, UK

I would pay more - and I do. Is it any wonder the mess we're in when we grind up one herbivore and feed it to another? Where we pump animals full of antibiotics and growth hormones. Where we spray crops with all manner of "perfectly safe" chemicals. Good food may be more expensive - but how much is your health worth to you?
Gordon, UK

Supermarkets are a rip-off for both farmers and shoppers. They put pressure on farmers to produce cheaper and cheaper goods whilst not passing on the savings to the consumer. It is true that food is relatively cheaper now than it has ever been, partly due to supermarkets, but the cost to the environment is now being seen. Also, the money we spend on supermarket food is going to the large chains, not the farmers. The best way to avoid this is to buy at local shops and farmers markets, the latter of which are on the increase. I support the idea of supermarkets stocking seasonal, locally produced foods, but I doubt the prices of them will reflect the savings of buying locally and seasonally. More likely is that they will find a marketing strategy that will allow them to charge more for these products.
Mark, UK

People will pay what they can afford for food. Organic food is, for example, for those who can afford premium prices. The majority of people who struggle to make ends meet will buyer cheaper factory-farmed eggs rather free-range. I don't think supermarkets are a rip-off. We have had an investigation that failed to determine this and margins are already wafer thin. What is needed is for the billions of tax pounds that we pay in subsidies to farmers to be returned to the taxpayer and let the market respond to demand.
Chris Klein, UK

If the United Kingdom has a food problem, it would be wise to invest more money into GM foods research. I know the words "Genetically Modified" are curse words to most Europeans, but they are the only way you will be able to squeeze more crops out of fewer plots of land. Organic farming methods are lovely for producing gourmet dishes or boutique crops, but they will do nothing for billions of hungry people other than rob them of land to live on. The human race can either submit to superstition or embrace the power of this amazing science, and I have absolutely no doubt of the outcome.
David Easley, Memphis, USA

Yes, I would pay more than twice what I pay now for locally-produced, organic food. I have made it my mantra and my goal to search out these food items where I can. In fact, there is nothing I wouldn't go without to ensure that the food my family eats is safe and, Mr. Easley from the US, not genetically modified!
Lisa, UK

Yes, supermarkets are a rip-off - an environmental and social rip-off. The waste of resources in transporting food to central depots and then redistributing it by road to supermarkets is scandalous. Fresh food should be locally produced, and the producers paid a fair price for their crops, especially those that are organic or come from sustainable farming practices. There is no reason for good quality, local produced food to be expensive or harmful to the environment.

I would pay more for quality food if I was convinced that that is the only way to get it. A trip to Europe, however, shows that quality food and other products) are available at a fraction of a UK prices. Just one more example of Rip-off UK, I'm afraid.
Rustam Roy, England

Well when Supermarkets have farmers outside complaining that the prices are "Too Low" then the supermarkets must be doing something right. Most supermarkets already do food which they term as "Superior" and you pay extra for that. However, you have a choice - if you do not want that then you do not need to buy it. If it was left to the whinging farmers then you would be paying "Superior Prices" for everything. I think it is about time that the farmers in the UK - the most heavily subsidised industry by the way - should learn to quit moaning all the time and actually get on with doing their job and making sure things like BSE and foot-and-mouth do not arise again.
Ed, UK

See also:

29 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
English farming 'unsustainable'
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