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.