The consumer must be king

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The Independent Online
If you want to make British agriculture green then you have to make the consumer king. That means overhauling a system of supermarkets that is uncompetitive. It means transforming an educational and labelling system that keeps people ignorant about food. We must create local markets where consumers and producers can restore their historic close relationship, which mass production and mass consumerism have destroyed.

The reality is that retailers and traders are sovereign. They mediate between production and consumer. They set the specifications, the price, even when and how the growing occurs down on the farm. Giant companies straddle the food world, competing to get value-added food and drink down our throats. Five retailers have around two thirds of the UK grocery market. A proper competition policy that put consumers first would break up these large companies.

We can have local markets. Last month I visited a 120-acre fruit and vegetable enterprise in Devon. Used for dairy or beef, it would employ around two families, at best. This had 30-40 jobs, produced 95 different plants and, despite supplying supermarkets, also supplied 1,000 households within 30 miles with weekly boxes of seasonal food. It can be done.

And then there is the issue of information. Consumers know that current information strategies such as labelling have been exposed as a charade. What label showed vegetarians that gelatin was a beef-product? We must have better labelling that tells everything about the way food has been produced. A sane food culture also requires proper education. We should make food central to the classroom and the school's meals.

We cannot achieve these structural and cultural changes overnight. In 20-30 years, maybe, but we need debate and leadership now. The vehemence of consumer action in the BSE crisis suggests that consumers have flexed their muscles. There are lessons for us all.