Part three of our series on the cost of living crisis.

INFLATION doesn’t hit everyone equally and nowhere is that difference more important than when it comes to food, about as essential to life as any product can be.

The price of a litre of milk has risen by about 10p in a year. While some families can absorb such an increase without it putting a dent in their household budget, for others it could mean cutting back on their children’s milk intake, or compensating for the increase by purchasing less fruit and veg.

The point is that inflation exacerbates the impact of income inequalities, which in turn exacerbates dietary and – ultimately – health inequalities. Such is the significance of what we can afford to eat in our lives that it is no exaggeration to say that years of progress in improving diets in Scotland could be rolled back by this cost of living crisis, if the necessary actions are not taken.

What are those necessary actions in the short-term and, for the medium to long-term, what does this crisis say about the vulnerabilities in Scotland’s food system and how to tackle them?

‘The bleakest time I’ve known’

“IT would be no exaggeration to say this is the bleakest time I’ve known,” Sabine Goodwin (right), director of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), told The National. “It’s never been so bad in terms of the kind of sheer panic I’m hearing about.”

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That panic comes from food bank users, but even more so from food bank organisers, who are having to use up reserves in order to meet sharply rising demand for their food. The inevitable result is the quality and variety of the food they offer is being compromised.

“In times gone by our food banks would have been thinking about diversifying and making sure people have the right mix of food for a balanced diet,” Goodwin said. “But when they are having to dip into reserves or rely on new donations, those possibilities are dwindling.

“We will always do our best, but obviously if resources are compromised we can’t provide the variety that we would like to.”

In Scotland, IFAN’s membership includes 124 independent food banks across 24 local authorities. Goodwin says they are now seeing people “who have never needed a food bank before”.

“Our members are reporting people coming who are working and before they were just getting by, and now they just can’t make ends meet,” she said.

What can be done immediately? Goodwin puts primary responsibility with the UK Government to “increase Universal Credit urgently”, after it was cut by £20 in October, a move she describes as “callous”.

As for the Scottish Government, the IFAN director believes the Scottish Welfare Fund, which provides crisis grants, must be beefed up and made more accessible. “It takes too long to get the payments and there’s limits on the number of payments you can access,” she says.

“They have to invest more money in the fund, but they also need to make sure local authorities are staffing the fund properly to cope with increasing demand and that it’s well promoted so people know about it, because many people in need still don’t know about it.”

The worry is that as bad as the situation is now, with food prices rising at their fastest rate in more than a decade, we may not have seen the worst of food inflation yet.

James Wither, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, a trade association that includes both farmers and retailers, has warned that rising international prices of staple foodstuffs such as wheat is putting intense pressure on the food supply chain, which could lead to 50% price increases on essential items. Such a possibility requires us to look more deeply at all aspects of Scotland’s food supply chain, not just the end user, to get a complete picture of why prices are so volatile.

A ‘predatory’ food supply-chain

FOR many Scottish pig farmers, the rising cost of feed – up more than 60% since February 2021 – is pushing them beyond the brink, with the National Pig Association stating that some have “already taken the decision to leave the industry” while others are “considering it”. One would think the problem was a shortage of wheat and other feed in Scotland which is pushing up prices for pig farmers. But that is not the case. “We are in a crazy situation where wheat stocks are at a completely normal level in Scotland yet we are seeing this huge volatility in the prices,” Pete Ritchie, director of Nourish Scotland, told The National. “Because the difficulty is that when the price of wheat goes up globally, it goes up locally too.”

Scotland’s wheat is a commodity locked into a global trading market which has been disturbed by the Ukraine war, as both Russia and Ukraine are major wheat producers.

In the context of global panic, big wheat farms will benefit while small pig farms will go to the wall, leading to market “consolidation”, Ritchie said, adding: “I think this crisis is like any crisis, if we don’t have an active policy to do something different then the companies and farms with deepest pockets will eat up some of the other ones.”

The National: Sabine Goodwin Independent Food Aid Network.Sabine Goodwin Independent Food Aid Network.

What sort of active policy could that be? While there’s little that the Scottish Government can do right now about global wheat prices, Ritchie says that there are other ways of reducing farmers costs, including “running every pig and chicken enterprise off renewable energy” to reduce heating bills. “Every farm should be a net energy producer in Scotland, that should be our goal,” he says.

To reduce price volatility, longer contracts between producers of animal feed and farmers would help, as would developing “processed food waste and other by-products which are more resilient to global price shifts”.

But ultimately key to helping farmers is changing the rules of the game when it comes to the sale of their produce to big supermarkets. Tesco, Britain’s biggest chain, saw profits triple over the past year to £2 billion. James Wylie, a pig farmer who is chair of the National Farmers Union Scotland’s pigs committee, says they are now getting just 37% of the final sale price, when in recent years that figure has been 42%.

Ritchie argues that the problem is that “all the power” in the food supply chain is with the supermarkets. “They are just so much bigger, and it means they can have quite a predatory relationship with their suppliers,” he says.

The Nourish Scotland director would like to see “a diversification” of the food retail sector so that there are genuine alternatives to the big supermarkets.

“We need more independent and non-profit food retailers. If you look at the housing sector, housing associations and councils are still an important part of the sector, but you just don’t have those alternative options in food retail.

“Without that, it’s difficult to break the complete stranglehold of the supermarkets, because for many farmers ultimately that dictates what they get for their produce.”

A more balanced relationship is needed not just to solve the current inflation crisis, but to tackle agriculture’s major contribution to carbon emissions in Scotland too.

“You can’t simply tell farmers ‘you have to produce food that has a lower impact on the planet, but we the supermarkets need to meet the expectations of our investors and our banks and so we are not going to pay for any of that’,” Ritchie says. “The cost of the transition has to be shared between the different actors in the supply chain, including end users, because the problem at the moment is everyone wants someone else to pay for it.”

Ending food banks

JOINED-UP thinking when it comes to the food system is not something Scotland has now, but the Scottish Government’s Good Food Nation Bill, which is on the verge of becoming law, is an attempt to move closer in that direction.

The bill places a requirement on health boards and local authorities to develop plans for how they will “ensure good quality, locally sourced and produced food is a practical everyday reality for everyone”. Scottish Ministers will also be required to produce good food nation plans “to support social and economic wellbeing, the environment, health and economic development.”

So far so good, according to the Scottish Food coalition, a diverse group of organisations which have been pushing for this bill for years. However, it believes the legislation is currently missing three key “ingredients”. Those are: a clear statement that the purpose of the bill is “the right to food today and for future generations”; that specific targets are set to be a Good Food Nation, such as ending the use of cages with farmed animals by 2027; and finally that an independent food commission is established to oversee all of this work.

Is the coalition going to have its wishes met by MSPs? Ritchie, a leading figure in the coalition, says it’s a mixed picture, with language on the right to food strengthened by amendments but not as central to the bill as he would like. Meanwhile, the targets are not going to be included, an outcome Ritchie says is “frustrating”. The final ingredient – the independent food commission–- is the big proposal that the coalition is still fighting to get into the final text.

“We think without an independent food commission which has got some resources and genuine independence then the focus on joined up food policy will diminish,” Ritchie says, comparing the sort of body the Scottish Food Coalition would like to see with the independent UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC). “Everybody recognises that, however much the CCC’s update reports might annoy them, it’s good to have it there and saying these things. Without something like the CCC, the bill just lacks any chance of real follow through, it will fade from view.”

One area an independent food commission could track is the Scottish Government’s ambition to end the need for food banks in Scotland. The government have consulted on a strategy for meeting that aim, and a plan will be published in the autumn. It’s something that Goodwin and the Independent Food Aid Network are excited about, despite the fact it would render their food banks redundant.

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“It’s very welcome, because we really believe in an end to charitable food aid by ensuring everyone has adequate income,” she says. “Food banks are of course needed in the here and now but in order to end all of this and to reduce the need for charitable food aid there’s no getting away from the fact that we need to be talking about poverty as the root cause.”

Ritchie shares a similar view: “We didn’t have food banks under Thatcher, when Scottish industry was hollowed out – we didn’t think food banks were a natural part of life. Now, we have completely normalised this idea.

“So fair play to the Scottish Government, which has really shifted its position in the last five or six years on this, from funding food banks to saying ‘no, we have actually got to get rid of them’.

“In a crisis like this one, it’s important we don’t think: ‘How do we get back to where we were? How do we get more food into food banks?’ The point coming out of this crisis is how can we really lay the foundations for the transformation of our food system.”