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What cost the price of meat?

Friday 31 August 2007

As the pundits forecast big hikes in the cost of food, and particularly of meat, our countryside commentator John Sheard reflects that this could be a great benefit for our farmers and the nation's health - if such changes are properly managed

ONE of the world's biggest accountancy companies this week issued a forecast that was met with doom and gloom in some quarters. Deloitte, the multi-national business advisory group, says that the cost of meat in the UK is bound to leap in the coming months and years because of international pressures.

One of these was a dramatic jump in the price of corn, which goes into animal feed as well as bread, for the cost of wheat from the vast North America prairies hit an all time high in Chicago in a week ago, partly because of a bad harvest caused by bad weather. Tell me about it!

meat on table
Can less mean more?

But there are other factors at work, too, which seem due to make life tougher for the British household. As we have recorded here before, millions of acres of corn fields are being converted to grow bio-fuel crops throughout the world.

And at the same time, millions of middle-class families in booming China and India are eating more and more meat, simply because they can afford it. So in a classic supply and demand situation, prices are bound to soar.

When I got over my initial shock of seeing that Deloitte had even taken the time to compile their report - people in the City of London barely know that agriculture exists as an industry - I was still not doing cartwheels: no-one likes to see unavoidable household bills soaring.

But on deeper reflection, I realise that events thousands of miles away from the Yorkshire Dales might have a double-bonus here at home. For a start, we have thousands of livestock farmers who desperately need a boost in meat prices. And, secondly, a drop in meat consumption might be just the shot of strong medicine that the flabby British public needs.

I was a child during World War 11 and meat was savagely rationed until well into the 1950s. As a result, in on of the most keenly studied medical phenomena in public health history, the British public was the healthiest it has ever been. Reason: empty bellies were topped up with home grown fruit and vegetables, the sort of high-fibre diet which only modern foodies eat today.

Now, at the far end of the age span, I have been reading with interest about American medical research which claims that the average lifetime of elderly people can be extended by as much as six or seven years by one very cheap and simple method: they just eat less. And, in particular, eat less meat!

Now I have do doubt that there are livestock farmers reading this who will condemn me for advocating a reduction in meat consumption, particularly here in the Dales where agriculture is going through its toughest times in living memory.

Government action will be needed to prevent the giant supermarkets hoovering up all the extra profits

I ask them to take, not my word, but the forecast of the hard headed business types at Deloitte. Their food and agriculture partner Richard Crane was quoted on Tuesday as saying: "Increased prices will allow farmers to continue to meet the increasing demand for local, high quality meat."

This is the policy that this column has been advocating for the past six years, ever since foot and mouth exposed just how fragile farming has become as an industry. By paying more for less, the public could be throwing a lifeline to an industry on the verge of going under in some areas.

And this weekend, instead of having two lamb chops and two veg, why not have one chop - and five veg. If millions of British families could be persuaded to do this - and the housekeeping bill is a pretty strong persuader - it could save the country billions in the cost of treating future obesity illness.

There is one fly in this particular ointment, however, a fly the size of a vampire bat (it's a blood sucker, too). Government action will be needed to prevent the giant supermarkets hoovering up all the extra profits from the rising price of meat. Trouble is, this government at present cares even less about farming than the City of London. If Westminster can change like the Square Mile, there might be hope for the countryside yet.

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