Realistic prices needed for European food stability and to safeguard society

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Please: A big round of applause for Jozsef Kapuvári. Who? You might well ask. Kapuvári is the author of an EU report that highlights the importance of realistic food prices – not just to underpin the food supply chain but to maintain the fabric of European society.

His report, Food Prices in Europe​, should be required reading throughout the food industry; from food company executives to policy-makers and opinion-formers.

Strip aside the language of Brussels; the weighty sentences heavy with complicated sub-clauses, and the meaning is clear. Europe needs its food to be priced realistically and not just to support its farmers who maintain an attractive countryside.

Food price volatility

Nor simply to reduce food price volatility which has become increasingly evident over recent years. Nor to guarantee food manufacturers, processors and retailers a continuity of supply at reasonable prices without reliance on fickle food imports.

It needs realistic food prices in order to maintain the very fabric of European society. In a moment of blinding lucidity the report states: “Food is the main force which holds society together; it is of strategic importance, and enjoys considerable consumer trust.”

Only with realistic food prices can the European food supply chain improve efficiency and competitiveness, he argued. The currently artificially low prices are stifling growth and innovation throughout the chain.

Kapuvári’s message will be received with different degrees of warmth in capitals around Europe. One of it warmest receptions is likely to be in Paris.

Earlier this month, following talks with President Nicholas Sarkozy, key food retailers in France – including Carrefour, Leclerc and Auchan – agreed to limit their margins during periods of crisis in fruit and vegetable production. According to the agreement, in time of “proven market crisis”, when producers’ prices fall significantly below the average of previous years, retailers will not increase their gross margin on affected products.

Steel fists

There were, of course, steel fists within Sarkozy’s gloved negotiating hands. He had raised the prospect of lifting the tax levied on commercial space in the event of all parties reaching an agreement.

Last weekend, to underline the precarious state of French farm incomes, young farmers took the unusual, but not unprecedented, step of bringing the countryside to the capital – literally.

They transformed one of Paris's main thoroughfares, the Champs-Elysees, into a green space using tonnes of earth, turf, plants and trees.

In London, a lukewarm reception is likely to await Kapuvári’s call for realistic food prices. It’s too early to tell how the new Conservative/Liberal coalition government will treat food production and the wider food industry on which it depends.

But early signs are less than encouraging. Uncertainty still surrounds the fate of the Food

Standards Agency.

More worryingly, what proportion of the UK government’s planned ₤6.2bn savings plan will be borne by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? And what affect will that have on the UK’s capability to produce secure and consistent supplies of reasonably-priced food?

Meanwhile, during French young farmers’ protest last weekend, the organization’s president William Villeneuve, asked the BBC’s Paris correspondent a prescient question: "Do they want the cheapest products in the world or do they want products that pay producers​?"

Before answering, everyone would be well advised to read Jozsef Kapuvári’s report. A full copy can be found online here​.

Mike Stones has written on food and farming topics for 20 years. He lives in Southern France and co-owns a small family arable farm in northern England. If you would like to comment on this article please use the ‘Make a comment’ function above.

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