In their place we now have a plethora of microbreweries and you can walk down to almost any local and find a lovely variety of real ales on offer. The impact on consumers of having a product that actually tastes interesting has been astonishing. Sales from microbreweries are going up by 8% a year and the industry now employs 5,500 people. The vast majority of the products they sell go only a few miles down the road and are appreciated by people who feel a connection with their own local producer.
Compare that with the situation with most food. The supply chain of most supermarkets has become so complex that the vast majority of them weren't even aware that they were selling horsemeat in their beef burgers. If they couldn't detect that then what confidence can any of us have that none of the meat in their mass produced products has been condemned as unfit to eat but slipped into the supply chain because it is cheap? The latest scandal is that somewhere in the complex supply chain producers have been substituting nuts for spices in ready meals because they are cheaper. Clearly this is dangerous for anyone with a nut allergy and for me the real question is: "If they didn't know about this, then what else don't they know?"
The marketplace will always put strong pressure on suppliers to keep prices to a minimum. We consumers can go where we like to shop and this drives supermarkets to ensure that they are the cheapest. It is no good wishing this behaviour would change and ideas like Fair Trade products work well but only for a small proportion of shoppers and an even smaller proportion of products. If we want to change the behaviour of our food suppliers there is no getting away from the need for incentives and for tightly controlled regulations. On the control side the price of being caught putting consumers at risk has to be high enough fines to make an impact on the bottom line of firms that make billions. That means millions not a few thousand. On the encouragement side we have to recognise that some parts of our supply chain need help in the form of subsidies.
Left to their own devices supermarkets have fought each other to prove that they are the cheapest on supplying the products that most consumers remember the price of. Milk is one of these. The consequence has been prices for milk that are often lower than the price for bottled water. When farmers are under pressure to produce food for payments to them such as 30p per litre for milk then they cannot possibly do so by sustainable and sensitive agricultural methods. The only way of producing food at the cheapest possible price is to drive down standards and force farmers to accept prices that require them to cut every corner and go for mass production.
The industrialisation of agriculture has reached such a pitch that many farms have fields of corn or of oil seed rape which stretch for well over a mile without so much as a single hedgerow to break the monotony. For wildlife this is a disaster. For any creature or disease which can live off this single crop it is paradise. Unless the crop is drenched in pesticides it will be eaten to death or disease ridden. So the countryside is subjected to very high levels of pesticides and each year more of them become ineffective as the pests become immune. The risk to our food security of placing so much dependency on chemical controls has become extreme and there are many crops that now consume more calories in fossil fuel for tractors and chemical sprays than they actually produce in the harvest. Clearly this is not sustainable.
But we cannot expect our farmers to do something about this without help. Integrated pest management and smaller more rotated fields are perfectly good ways of keeping production high whilst taking massively lower risks with the environment. Connecting farmers to local food markets more directly is a very effective way of ensuring the quality of the supply chain and improving variety and interest for the consumer. But both methods require adjustment, change and extra time from the farmer. These are things that carry a cost.
If we want our farmers to be able to adjust to working in new ways and we want to know where our food comes from and enjoy its variety then there is no alternative to a degree of regulation and a significant amount of well aimed subsidy.
It would be nice to think that consumer pressure on its own could achieve change in food quality and farming practices in the same way that it did with beer. Clearly consumer pressure will help. In the end, however, what is needed is political change. The priority we give to the environment needs to change and the money needed to back this change needs to be provided.
This is one of the prime reasons why I joined the Green Party and I am hoping that every vote the Green's get in May will help to drive home the message that we need to change the way we consume and produce our food. And fast.