What's wrong with cheap food?

Sunday 18 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Frobisher 5-6 Economic solutions?

In January this year, the president of the National Farmers’ Union declared on BBC Radio 4 that ‘milk is now cheaper than water’, a claim that was widely repeated over subsequent days. The idea resonated with a widespread belief that supermarkets and milk processors were using their market power to drive dairy farmers to the wall. But the claim that food is too cheap has been made more broadly, too. Cheap food is said to be of poor quality, both in terms of taste and nutrition, with wider implications for our health in the context of an obesity crisis. Cheap food, we are told, has led us to become wasteful, too, with serious implications for the environment and our ability to feed a growing world population. If food were more expensive, it is suggested, we would use it more wisely.

Yet others would see the long-term trend to reduce food prices as a good thing. In the 1930s, around 30 per cent of the average household income was spent on food. Today, the figure is nearer 10 per cent. For most households, this cheapening of food has allowed them to spend more on other things. For the poorest households, cheap food may be the difference between eating and going without. Moreover, many of the reasons that food has become cheaper - in terms of gains in productivity both of land and agricultural labour - will be vital to feeding the nine billion people expected to be around in 2050.

There are multiple other meanings given to cheap food today, however. For example, there is a degree of snobbery about the kinds of food poor people eat, exemplified by the coverage of the horsemeat scandal in 2013, which often had a tone of ‘what did they expect for so little money?’. Yet the economic crisis also brought a competitiveness to discussions of food buying, as previous well-off people boasted at how clever they were to shop more cheaply. How should we understand these different reactions to cheap food, and how might the food system itself change in the future?

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Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum

Andrew Opie
director for food and sustainability, British Retail Consortium

Alex Renton
award-winning journalist; writer on food and food policy; author, Planet Carnivore: how cheap meat costs the earth

Justine Brian
director, Debating Matters Competition

Produced by
Rob Lyons science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum
Recommended readings
Why Europeans Should Be Paying More for Their Food Alex Renton, Newsweek, 10 January 2015

Food is too cheap and too expensive?

Greens say cheap food encourages waste. Poverty campaigners rail against rising prices. Both miss the point.

Rob Lyons, Spiked, 20 November 2012

Sustainable intensification in agriculture

Navigating a course through competing food system priorities

Tara Garnett & H Charles J Godfray, FCRN / Oxford Martin School, 2012

The True Cost of Cheap Food

The globalisation of the food market has made food cheap, but who is benefiting?

Timothy A Wise, Resurgence, 1 April 2010

Supermarkets meet the needs of farmers and consumers Andrew Opie, spiked, 7 October 2009

Fast Food: A Love Story

This programme reveals, with an emphasis on our lunches, how food and eating have evolved since the 1950s. Special emphasis is placed on the importance of supermarkets, as Rob Lyons, author of Panic on a Plate, tells us, supermarkets have enabled more people to be fed more inexpensively, conveniently and well.


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