A global food crisis could mean a future in which 'local' is focal, says Nick Fenwicke-Clennell
"Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, 'Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist' and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school."
So declared former Prime Minister John Major when expressing his ambition for the country in 1993.
At the time, this rose tinted statement was derided, but given what is happening in the food world today, it might just turn out to be one of history's more extraordinary prophecies. Could we be on the verge of an era when we see the return of the kitchen garden and the proliferation of allotments in place of the weekly supermarket visit and stream of ready meals?
As we all know, there is currently something of a global food crisis generated by the coming together of a number of different circumstances at the same time expanding population, rising oil and raw material prices, drought, and bio-fuel mismanagement, to name but a few.
Given that in the UK we currently import about 40% of our food, the effects of these global issues have been compounded by the falling value of the pound which has created much higher import costs and, whatever statistical model you follow, overall food prices have risen dramatically, with the Office of National Statistics estimating the cost of imported food and drink to have risen by 19.3% in the year to May 2008.
But how lasting is this situation? It is clear that for foodservice operators, the coming months will see an escalation in food prices well above that which the industry is currently experiencing.
Prices are so volatile that no supplier in possession of their marbles will guarantee a fixed rate for more than three months at the very most, unless on very secure ground. Also, margins are pretty tight and so there is little commercial alternative but to pass them on to operators competing in a marketplace for diners increasingly impoverished by taxes and living expenses. Something has to give.
There have been a number of initiatives that should make more food stuff available, such as the EU revocation of agricultural set-aside, an increase in milk quotas and a realignment of bio- fuel policy. There has also been a recent suggestion by Sir David King, one of the country's top scientists, that the GM subject be revisited, though this appears to have been brushed aside by a government wary of the political implications of overtly supporting such a suggestion.
However, the oil question is here to stay and with it the implicit additional costs to all the derivatives relevant to the food service process - production, transport, packaging the latter of enormous importance to the preservation of food and consequently a major issue.
Multiple retailers have been so successful in providing for the contemporary culture of instant gratification, that they have created a generation to whom the concept of seasonal non-availability is bizarre, as the likes of asparagus, peaches and strawberries can be found on supermarket shelves 365 days of the year.
It is transport and packaging innovations that have been key to making this possible. Could the increased cost of providing this service, already damaging to the environment in terms of food miles, become so damaging to consumers' food budgets that demand will nosedive? Could this herald a general return to the locally produced food, so admired and advocated by many a contemporary chef, and with it a return to exclusively seasonally available fresh produce?
It was interesting to read recently that demand for organic box delivery was in free fall as consumers saw the termination of their weekly order as an easy belt tightener in the current economic climate. This is a cost driven measure, but there is clearly a demand there. What would happen then if there were greater availability of similar, though not necessarily organic, produce?
One would assume that the greater the supply the less the cost, but also that only financial incentive would create the mass cultural shift required for customers to move from, say, a homogenised, conveniently packaged lettuce, to a soil and potentially bug filled version, requiring rather more effort before serving.
Currently, the majority of local seasonal produce is found in farmers markets and farm shops sources only available to a few. Prices here are invariably the same or greater than imported supermarket products which, although largely due to the additional transport cost of the imported product being negated by economies of scale and lower labour costs than in the UK, still raises eyebrows and can act as a deterrent to purchase.
So with the price of local and imported product fairly similar and the 'added value' of supermarket pre-packs tipping the choice balance in the latter's favour,the other aspect of the purchase decision is the emotional one.
As customers become more and more environmentally aware, a nagging consciousness will no doubt emerge when the choice is offered between local and imported product and we are likely to see a creeping growth in demand for the former from the domestic customer. Whether this turns into a landslide, as the costs of imported and packaged goods increase, remains to be seen.
We are already seeing this in corporate foodservice where increasing numbers of client companies are demanding locally produced products, where possible, to support the sustainability statements of their CSR policies. Restaurants which have long been highlighting the provenance of their ingredients, are now turning their focus towards promoting local products on their menus, with some using it as their USP. Where Foodservice leads, the domestic consumer will invariably follow.
So taking Lord Major's vision a stage further, imagine a country with oil so scarce that it was too expensive to create packaging and local markets instead of supermarkets, where people would shop on a daily, rather than weekly, basis; a country where restaurants had to use exclusively local sources and most likely served a predominantly local clientele, due to the high cost of powered travel. Unlikely, one would have thought. But then in 1993 he did start "Fifty years from now..."