A recent survey by the consumer organisation Which? found that price is the priority for most food shoppers, and 65 per cent of those asked said that it had become even more important because of present economic problems.
Shoppers select on price even more when they have less money – who would have thought that?
But perhaps that is unfair to Which? Its extensive survey – more than 2,000 shoppers and group discussions is extensive compared with most – also indicates that about a third also consider quality and taste more important when family finances are under pressure.
About one in four thought locally-produced food and animal welfare important, then there was a sliding scale through fair trade products, environmental impact and convenience to 15 per cent who thought food safety had become more important.
But price as the main arbiter is way out in front, for high-income as well as low-income shoppers. That has led to an increase in trade for discounters and value brands at the expense of premium brands and organic products.
The effects of this – not according to Which? but to personal observation, media reports and company results – can be seen in the desperate jockeying for market share among the main supermarkets and the type of vehicles now frequently seen in, for example, Aldi and Lidl carparks.
What the survey didn’t look at was customer loyalty. That must still play a part in high streets even in the worst of times, certainly in the Borders where there are still many good and top-quality butchers and bakers in spite of all the big retailers can throw at them. There, I suggest, quality, taste and the personal touch still have priority.
The big question, to go beyond the interesting, but parochial, grounds on which shoppers base their buying in the UK, is whether there will be enough food for everyone, of any quality at any price, 50 or 100 years from now?
Never mind 50 years, the world’s population is expected to be more than nine billion by 2050, an increase of one third from now. That will be against a background of scarcity of land, water and fertilisers, and uncertain economic prospects for most countries.
Granted most of the population increase is expected in developing countries where the most effective answer to many of the world’s potential problems would be effective birth control.
But an increase of one third in the billions of mouths to feed in less than 40 years must have an effect on every country in the world.
In the short term, that knock-on could be seen as a good thing for UK farmers. More people to feed must equal a need for more production. Either that will be exported or it will mean a rise in value for home consumption as imports become more expensive in a more competitive world market.
The permutations of that are obviously endless. It could even be argued that a worst-case situation for a government and supermarkets of hardly any imports and much greater UK reliance on home production would be a good thing for farmers, unlikely though that is to happen.
It could equally be argued that better storage and much less wastage of food could make prospects of feeding the world as a whole much brighter.
That was emphasised at the recent World Water Week conference in Stockholm, a gathering of 2,500 water specialists, politicians, food industry representatives, farmers and others. I’m not sure what the collective noun is for 2,500 water experts – a flood? a tsunami? – but their discussion of world water and food security was important.
Water has been described as “the new oil”, a resource that most of us squander cheerfully, but that is under threat from excessive use and even more excessive waste – 50 per cent waste between production and consumption, according to some estimates – with the world’s farmers at the centre of anything that can be done.
That is because, according to discussion at the conference, of all the Earth’s water, only about three per cent is fresh and two thirds of that – in spite of climate change and global warming debate – is locked in glaciers.
Of the available fresh water in the world, about 70 per cent is used by farmers. Now that is a thought. Not even so much for its use in growing crops, where application and result can almost be calibrated precisely – such as irrigation for potatoes and vegetables – but its use in producing meat.
Some calculations, hard to believe, suggest that producing one kilo of meat can use up to 15,000 litres of water. Others suggest less than 1,000 litres. However much is used, the world’s problem – an opportunity at least in the short term, of course, for livestock farmers – is that as countries develop and more people have more disposable income, such as now in China, demand for meat increases.
The world going organic might not be the answer, but a world going vegetarian would help – guess how popular that suggestion would be with UK farmers.