A prominent food writer has told a parliamentary inquiry that consumers need to pay more for food to protect British farming.
The food critic and author Jay Rayner told the parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee: “We pay too little (for food). We’re far too used to paying too little. And the only way we have at our disposal, I think, to secure a robust food supply is by investing in British farming and that does mean consumers pay more and look for that label.
“But obviously we’ll never get beyond 75% self-sufficiency so there will always be gaps, and there should be.”
Mr Rayner, before the committee as it raised questions around food security with regards to demand, consumption and waste, said food supply should be regarded as a public utility.
He said: “I think we have to regard food supply as a public utility, and one that’s almost more serious in some regards than gas or electricity.
“If gas or electricity was off for three days we’d get by. If food supply stopped for three days we’d, to repeat Lord Cameron’s great line ... we are nine meals from anarchy. So it is a rather vital thing.
“There is a small group of very large companies to whom we have given free run of the retail food market. I mean 95% of the retail food market is controlled by nine companies.
“And I strongly believe that with that market share comes a massive social responsibility. They are custodians of the food supply, and the Government of the day, the state, does have a role to mediate that supply, so that we can still guarantee a reasonable food supply given the challenges that lie outside our own borders.”
He added that it was time the UK started thinking “very seriously” about introducing a form of sustainability measurement “which forces businesses to be very clear and upfront about that sort of stuff and slapping it on the packet”.
“It has to be said I can’t imagine why any food business would not do a whole lifecycle analysis of what it does. It’s good business to know exactly what your footprint is.
“But we are now seeing a massive price war between the supermarkets. It may well require the involvement of government to make that sort of thing happen.
“I think you’d probably do it on a CO2 per kilo yield measure and then traffic light it.”
But he added: “I think it’s fair to say anything that requires extra work and extra compliance is resisted by the supermarkets for business reasons.”
Asked if buying locally produced food, for example at farmers markets, was simply an indulgence for the well-off or helped to secure the national food supply, Mr Rayner said: “It has absolutely nothing to do with the national food supply. It is a cultural and aesthetic choice for the affluent middle classes. That is all it is.
“I think the most you could possibly say is that it connects you with the food supplier because people come along with wheel barrows and sell it off.”