Opinion: Food is far from ‘too cheap’ for some

“Food is too cheap. People only spend 10% of their income on food these days – the lowest it has ever been. It needs to be more expensive.” That’s probably your opinion. It’s what most farmers think.

Well, based on my previous form, you won’t be surprised to hear that I am about to disagree with the statement.

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The “food costs 10% of income” statistic has been bandied about by the farming industry for so long that it has become received wisdom. Even industry leaders will say it in public. But the figure is absolute nonsense.

Here is the maths. Anyone who works 39 hours at the minimum wage earns £16,500 gross per annum. Knock off the tax and this leaves a net income of £14,500 a year. That is about £280 a week.

Let us take the case of a family of two parents in full-time work on the minimum wage, and assume they have two children. If they were to spend 10% of their income on food it would amount to £56 a week. That is only 66p a meal for each person.

Technically, this figure also needs to include the cost of purchasing a fridge and an oven, paying your gas and electricity costs and transporting yourself to and from the shop. For many low-income households, it is the latter costs that are the biggest barriers to eating well.

Let’s assume instead that you are a pensioner – if you are a farmer then there’s a fair chance that you are. The state pension in this country is £168 a week. How many pensioners are feeding themselves for £16.80 a week?

Based on these figures, millions of people in this country are clearly spending a much higher proportion of their income on food than we realise.

According to a recent study, the poorest fifth of families in the UK would have to set aside more than 40% of their total weekly income after housing costs to satisfy the requirements of the government’s Eatwell guide.

There is a serious conversation to be had in this country about how we feed people with healthy, affordable food in a sustainable way. Farmers should be part of that dialogue.

Unfortunately, when it comes to talking about consumer habits, many farmers make statements worthy of Marie Antoinette.

Working parents who need to provide a quick family meal for under £5 are not going to appreciate being told that they don’t eat enough pasture-fed lamb.

Single mums who work 45 hours a week are not going to like being told that they should shop at the market and cook a casserole from scratch every night.

There is a role for public education – particularly in schools – about feeding yourself well, but we need to recognise how hard this is where incomes are low.

One-third of families in the UK are reported to be one unexpected bill away from financial hardship.

The uncomfortable truth for farmers is that government policy, post Brexit, will have its focus on helping struggling consumers rather than making farmers more profitable.

Farmers need to confront this painful reality when they create business plans.

The prospect of a no-deal Brexit, with the removal of tariffs on imported food, is an enticing proposition to many politicians.

The need for us to improve our productivity and lower our costs is more pressing than ever.

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