June 25, 2008

Food Strategy Can Government Overcome Market Forces?

SCOTLAND sorely needs a food and drink policy. We like to boast about Scottish produce and quite rightly attract visitors with menus of Scottish seafood, salmon, Aberdeen Angus beef, succulent soft fruit and fine cheeses, but most Scots don't base their diet on prime, home-grown ingredients. We spend more of the household food and drink budget on alcoholic drinks than on fruit and vegetables. The fact that the price of food is increasing at a higher rate (6.9per cent in April) than the overall retail price index inflation (4.2per cent) is likely to make the situation worse.

Launching the policy at the Royal Highland Show, Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, acknowledged the dichotomy between the prime produce on display and the unhealthy diet of so many Scots. No-one would disagree with him that fresh, seasonal, local food is good for the environment and the consumer. It is, however, an unfortunate reality that when weighing up what to buy in the supermarket, consumers trying to stretch their household budget are swayed by price.

One of the ironies of the Scottish diet is that people who live in rural areas often have the least access to fresh food, particularly high-value fish and seafood, which is exported, while even basic foods become more expensive away from the main centres of population. New regulations to introduce nutritional requirements for food and drink in schools are a positive step towards changing the next generation's understanding of nutrition, and emphasising sustainability and seasonal produce in government catering contracts is welcome evidence of the government willing to lead by example.

Reform of regulations on country-of origin-labelling should end the current confusion over whether a product, such as salmon, has been produced in Scotland or merely processed in Scotland. That is an anomaly which works against the interests of consumers and genuine Scottish producers, and should be easily overcome.

The metaphorical meat missing from this policy, however, is detail of how government can intervene effectively in a market subject to global forces. An inquiry into affordable access to food in Scotland is to look at the full spectrum of factors relating to supply and cost, but moving from the facts to a method of providing families on limited budgets with access to affordable healthy food will be a tall order. The food and drink industry, currently worth GBP7.3bn to the Scottish economy, will be encouraged to reach a target of GBP10bn by 2017 through an innovation group and GBP60m of grants for marketing and co-operation over five years. However, any major change in how food is processed, distributed and sold between the farm gate and the plate will depend on the supermarkets. The SNP government has already signalled a showdown with them over the retail price of alcohol; yesterday those which have increased their stock of Scottish produce were praised, but the "supermarket summit" to be chaired by the First Minister in September may be the point at which the new food and drink policy comes up against unyielding commercial reality.

Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.

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