Food Prices & Bumps in the Road

BY JIM WEBSTER

From talking to fellow farmers and others over the last few months, there has been ‘considerable dislocation’ in the market. The nearer you are to ‘commodity’ food production the more stable things have been. Whereas if you’ve specialised to produce for niche markets or even sell direct to the catering trade or at farmers’ markets, everything went very messy very quickly in the new Covid era.

We had the same number of consumers, who largely wanted to eat pretty much the same things, but some of the routes from farm to plate were blocked by lockdown. But there have been some good things to come from it. At least for certain sections of the industry.

As somebody who is instinctively a dairy farmer, it cheers me immensely to discover that one of the big successes has been cheese. Apparently average cheese consumption increased by 44% during the lockdown. I don’t find this too difficult to believe. Cheese is easy, flexible, and is an integral part of so many comfort foods. I mean, I know people so adventurous that they even grate cheese over beans on toast and give it a quick twirl in the microwave to melt the cheese.

But there’s other openings as well. Cathedral City cheddar (which is, by sales volume, probably the UK’s favourite cheddar) has potentially made a breakthrough. It will be available across 2,000 plus retail outlets in the USA during November. This happened a month after Saputo, the company that produces this cheese, announced that 500 Canadian stores would be selling the cheese. To be fair, Saputo is a Canadian company so it’s probably easier for them to get a toe in that door. But still, to put all this in perspective, Tesco’s has under 2,700 stores in the UK. This means that the combined number of Canadian and US outlets stocking the UK’s favourite cheddar will be about the same as the number of UK Tesco Stores.

This is nothing to do with Brexit or trade deals. It’s simply good companies looking for markets for good products. Still we’ve got the usual hullaballoo going on about trade deals at the moment. I saw somebody comment (when ‘discussing’ chlorine-washed chicken) that the UK government imports this rubbish. This is nonsense. The UK government imports extraordinarily little food. (I suppose it might bring in some for the armed forces.) Food imports are largely imports arranged by private companies who know what their consumers demand.

So what do consumers demand?

Well as a rule of thumb, in times of prosperity, 20% will look at artisan or quality foods. In times of recession this can drop to 10%. And, as you might have gathered, we’re heading into a recession. The private companies who import food know what their customers want, and they are going to want ‘cheap.’

There’s also a move to ban imports of food from countries that do not meet UK standards. The problem is that this includes the EU. For example, the UK banned sow stalls in 1999. But the EU kept using them and because of EU single market regulations we had to keep importing meat from pigs that had been kept in sow stalls. The EU eventually banned them in 2013 but still, Compassion in World Farming regard it as only a partial ban, saying, “the partial sow stall ban makes it illegal to confine sows for their entire pregnancy, and requires sows to be group housed from 4 weeks after mating or earlier.”

Admittedly once we’ve fully left the EU we can ban EU pork products on the grounds of animal welfare if people want. Just as we can ban US chlorine-washed chicken and, one assumes, EU chlorine-washed salad vegetables.

But seriously, given we have a lot of people in the UK who are going to struggle to be able to afford food to put on the table, how much will they care? The 80:20 is going to move more to 90:10.

So what do we do? Passing laws banning imports from countries that do not meet UK food standards could lead to food rationing, and a winter vegetarian diet consisting of a lot of turnip and sprouts. Can we use some sort of guidance to nudge our consumers? Only time will tell.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs). It’s available here.