Consumers are spending more money on good food, but better education and labelling are needed if British agriculture is to survive, according to a major conference last week.

Speakers at the South-West Excellence Debate agreed that consumers were demanding more from their food – including taste, welfare and environmental issues. But while some were prepared to pay more for these qualities, many still bought on price. “People want to make the environmental choice but they want to do this conveniently and affordably,” said Emily Shamma, head of local sourcing at Tesco.

“People talk about green choices but this is seriously hampered by a lack of information and affordability. I don’t want green consumerism to be the preserve of the affluent elite – we need to make sure the ability to change is available for all. We therefore need to give them the information required to enable them to make the right choice – and to make that choice clear, affordable and convenient.”

Help farmers

Issues such as food miles and healthy, seasonal food with provenance would only help UK farmers, said Peter Ainsworth, shadow DEFRA secretary. But more of the population needed to be educated about the true cost of cheap food, such as obesity, poor child behaviour, and the loss of farming from Britain, he added.

“Low checkout prices kick the profit out of UK farming and make us more reliant on imports, which is fundamentally unsustainable. Sustainable food shouldn’t be a luxury for the few – it should be in the mainstream.”

The proportion of disposable income spent on food had fallen from 50% in 1950 to less than 10% now, said Anthony Gibson, NFU communications director. Over the same time the amount received by farmers for every pound spent had dropped from 50p to just 7.5p.