The Great British Bake Off: Food is too important to be left to the free market

Over the next 11 weeks we will be looking at food in greater depth and putting the case for more progressive food policies


Over the course of this weekend a significant number of British households will have dusted off their kitchen scales and attempted to recreate some of the delights of the Great British Bake Off. I celebrated the start of Bake Off’s sixth series with tea for some old comrades.

As we ate my pistachio madeira cake, our conversation turned from the Labour leadership election to Bake Off itself. Is its popularity – ten million viewers on Wednesday – merely a reflection of its entertainment value? Or does it represent a desire to acquire the culinary skills that our schools and families have failed to teach us?

Perhaps the popularity of Bake Off might be a manifestation of something deeper, such as a nostalgia for the traditional Sunday lunch and high teas with Victoria sponge?

We have seen huge changes in patterns of food production and consumption in recent years. Arguably, Bake Off’s popularity indicates a desire to return to an idealised past of unadulterated, home-cooked food. Thinking about some of these issues later, it became evident that the UK completely lacks coordinated food policies.

A significant recent change in food production has been the intensification of agriculture, achieved through genetics and the greater use of fertilisers and pesticides. Compared with 40 years ago, we grow more fruit and vegetables out of season and under plastic and the average dairy cow now produces about 7,717 litres of milk per lactation, an increase of 20 per cent since 2000.

But greater yields have environmental costs and one of the objectives of food policy is to square the tensions between farm profitability and the need for abundant, cheap food versus the need for environmental sustainability.

We consume less milk, fresh meat and potatoes than we did in 1975 and our diet has become more diverse, with 47 per cent of food products now coming from outside the UK. We also eat out more and consume more processed and pre-prepared food than 40 years ago.

This, and our more sedentary lifestyles have contributed to an epidemic of obesity, with 62 per cent of adults overweight or obese in 2013.

While most people aspire to cook and to eat a healthy diet, these good intentions are not always put into practice.

There have also been major changes in our food shopping habits. Despite the recent growth of farmers markets and budget chains, about 73 per cent of our grocery expenditure takes places in just four retail outlets: Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

Intense price competition between supermarkets forces them to keep their costs as low as possible which is achieved by squeezing their UK suppliers or buying abroad; supermarket power as monopsonies enables them to get away with this. In turn, UK suppliers are forced to keep wages in farming and food processing as low as possible, which means the National Minimum Wage and zero hours contracts.

While food prices have risen by about 20 per cent in real terms since 2007, food has never been so affordable. Food and drink accounted for just over 11 per cent of average family expenditure in 2013, compared with 33 per cent in 1961, the year that this data was first collected.

Yet increasing numbers of people are reliant on food banks and for families in the lowest income quintile, 16 per cent of family expenditure goes on food and drink.

Some 3.7 million UK jobs involve the production, processing and retailing of food and drink. With food so central to our lives it might be expected that the government might try hard to advance coordinated food policies.

Yet this is not the case.

The approach of the 1997-2010 Labour governments could best be described as piecemeal and reactive. After Salmonella and BSE scares, the Food Standards Agency took over food safety responsibilities in 2000, but gained few additional powers. Regulations to improve the quality of school meals were initially resisted and were only introduced in 2006 after campaigning from the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Even then, the newly-introduced school food standards did not apply to most nurseries and academies. Few local authorities have used their planning powers to stop new fast food outlets opening near schools.

Throughout its years in government Labour was unwilling to curb the power of the supermarkets, for fear of being labelled anti-business or nanny state. Although Gordon Brown commissioned a food policy strategy in 2008, its recommendations were weak or never followed through.

A fragmented and uncoordinated approach continues to this day, although we have seen some policy changes. The Groceries Code Adjudicator came into operation in 2013, and is an attempt to see that the supermarkets treat their suppliers fairly.

The direction of government policy on healthy eating is that it is the responsibility of the individual, with the lightest of regulation applied to the food and drink industry. Meanwhile, this sector pursues its interests through aggressive advertising and the lobbying of politicians and officials.

Coordinated UK food policies are not easy to achieve, one reason being that many different players are involved, in central government, the devolved administrations and at EU level. It is also not easy to balance competing priorities – cheap food against environmental sustainability, for example.

But at a time when obesity places a huge burden on the NHS, food is too much of an important issue to be left to individuals and the free market. Over the next 11 weeks of Bake Off we will be looking at food in greater depth and put the case for progressive policy.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor at Left Foot Forward

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

22 Responses to “The Great British Bake Off: Food is too important to be left to the free market”

  1. stevep

    It is the responsibility of the individual what food they buy and consume, but that choice is shaped by the millions food companies spend on advertising to get people to buy what they are selling, purely to make profit, rather than make nutritious food in the first place. It is a business first, a source of food, second.

    If the company can make more money selling YumYuk chocolate bars by targeting children and depressed adults rather than making food that actually sustains people, then that`s what they`ll do.

    A substantial proportion of the global population either don`t get enough to eat or have to eat what they can get, so having a choice is largely a phenomenon of the wealthier nations.

    In the UK we have skirted around the question of food and nutrition for decades, with various fads and fashions coming into popularity and then waning: Carbohydrates = good, fats = bad. Some fats = good, others bad. Protein good = carbs, bad. Organic vs chemically treated foods etc. etc.

    There is little debate about whether foods we take for granted, like milk (a food for baby mammals), or meat is actually harmful long-term if consumed in the quantities we are all used to. The consideration always comes down on the side of the producers, not the consumer.

    During the BSE crisis a few years ago, the deaths from Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease (the human equivalent), were hushed up as much as possible. Indeed, the whole shambles was caused by paying lip-service to regulating the industry and much more effort was put into protecting it at the expense of the consumer.

    Chocolate bars, fizzy drinks, fatty junk foods are all perfectly acceptable and enjoyable, in moderation. But we should get our primary sources of nutrition from better foods, such as fruit&veg, meat in moderation, beans&pulses, granary products etc.
    Food companies should not be allowed to dictate via advertising, what we eat and drink.

    Government should bear responsibility for educating people about proper nutrition and should require the food companies to follow strict guidelines on advertising products with poor nutritional quality.

    It would ultimately open up a wider debate on what foods we actually need, rather than want. Where they are sourced, how they are produced, subsidisation of food production and agriculture, The type of propaganda used to sell products and a whole lot more.
    Food is too important not to have this debate.

  2. Giles Farthing

    So you want to tell people what they can eat and when they can eat it. I think you would love 19th century Russia. But me, I like my freedom thanks. Maybe I’m just sentimental and all that but I do. Your world isn’t so much nanny state as gestapo state

  3. I'm very cross about this.

    The world is falling apart around us with most of Africa at war and descending into deeper chaos. An autocratic and un-elected EU issuing edicts that must be followed and pushing the southern states into bankruptcy. Russia flexing its muscles daily bringing the renewed threat of war in Europe. The Labour party seemingly on the brink of electing a 1980’s throwback as leader who would not have the remotest chance of being elected and Left Foot Forward lectures us on what to eat!!!

    Is there anything that the left in our country don’t want to control?

  4. Jacko

    Whilst the Labour party is on the brink of collapsing back into 1980s socialism and a generation in opposition, we get articles about burgers and chocolate. Says it all really.

  5. chrissnowdon

    Let me get this straight. If I bake a cake myself, it’s “unadulterated, home-cooked food” but if someone else bakes a cake and I buy it off them, it’s “processed and pre-prepared food”. And how does pre-prepared food differ from prepared food? Is there also a category of pre-pre-prepared food that’s even worse?

  6. chrissnowdon

    Bob Dylan said that every line of A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall is the opening line of a song that he will never have time to write. Similarly, every line of this article sounds like the start of unwritten essay. It’s not so much an argument as a collection of somewhat related facts and figures.

  7. I'm very cross about this.

    Have a nice debate with Jill, you seem made for each other. The rest of us can talk about important matters.

  8. stevep

    Like trolling on behalf of the rich and greedy, perhaps?

  9. stevep

    We don`t want to control your far-right neo-troglodyte thinking – you`re welcome to that!

  10. stevep

    Trolling again on behalf of the far-right. says it all really.

  11. Alex Mason

    Stevep, aka Dick from the internet.

  12. Jacko

    Oh, the rich and greedy thing again.

    Let’s examine your views with some specific examples.

    J K Rowling. She started with very little and became fabulously wealthy through hard work. Is she now evil? Or greedy? Or both? Or is her wealth okay because she was once poor? Is it okay for people for make money through talent and work? What if I stayed at home for next two years and wrote a novel whilst my friends went to the pub, do I not deserve to be rewarded for that if it sells ten million copies? I think I do. I think anyone does.

    And what about Alan Sugar? Working class guy. Started with next to nothing. Made a lot of money in business through risk and hard work. It wasn’t handed to him. He could have just gone to the local factory and had 2.4 kids and done nothing with his life. He chose not to do that. Is evil as well?

    Or what about a middle class kid who goes to medical school and eventually becomes a surgeon? Took him 15 years of clinical training. Now he lives in a big house in the countryside. Does that make him greedy? Should he earn the same as someone who works in Poundland, where the training takes half a day? I don’t think so.

    Don’t just call me a troll. Answer the questions.

  13. Jenny Chanter

    The point is that people need access to the facts so that they can make informed choices about their diets. Food education has suffered seriously from the dictate of successive governments and now as the final insult, the current government are removing A level Food and not replacing it.
    Food Science and vocational routes will still exist, so we will still be able to eat, but knowledge and understanding are now handed over to any self proclaimed expert with whatever vested interest motivates them.

  14. JohnSmith

    I just checked the date and no, its not 1st April

  15. stevep

    If the cap fits, you`ve got to wear it. You`re a right-wing TROLL!! Enough said.

  16. Jacko

    What you think of me is irrelevant to whether you can answer simple questions about your beliefs. Can you not answer them?

  17. stevep

    Definition of internet troll:

    Wikipedia defines it as:

    “Someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”
    The On-Topic discussion is progressive left of centre politics.
    You are here to disrupt and divert.
    Like I said, you are a Troll. You will be outed as a Troll.

  18. Kiri Valsamis

    If a food product is commercially pre-prepared it most often does differ from home-cooked. there may be a range of food additives incorporated in the product (preservatives, flavourings and colourings). An understanding and discussion of such consumer-related issues are integral in Home Economics/Food/Nutrition courses in high school. Further, students will learn key skills so that they may produce their own home-cooked food products.

  19. Kiri Valsamis

    Jacko, I’m sure that there are other articles related to the issues that are of more concern you. Continue to spend your money on whatever type of food you wish.

  20. Kiri Valsamis

    … when you are not so “very cross…” you will see that no-one is telling YOU what to eat. In fact the commentary refers to enabling individuals with the information for a balanced argument with consideration for their future health.

  21. Kiri Valsamis

    You’ve missed the point of a forum to discuss a range of topics.

  22. Kiri Valsamis

    Your tone and statements are aggressive and fail to make a point about the topic at hand.

Leave a Reply