Farmers face potentially crippling problems in the next few years unless immediate steps are taken to match the growing public demand for healthier food, a leading food and agriculture expert said last night.
The growth of supermarket chains with great purchasing power and the will and ability to respond rapidly to changing consumer demand has shifted the balance of power from the food producer to the food consumer, Dr Verner Wheelock, director of food policy research at Bradford University said.
In the past two years pasteurized skimmed or semi-skimmed milk has taken about 16 per cent of the British milk market, he said.
The increasingly health-conscious British consumer is likewise eating much more lean meats such as chicken, than fatty meats such as lamb, more low-fat spreads and poly-unsaturate margarines instead of hard margarines and butter, more high-fiber breads and cereals and less whole milk.
The consumer is also increasingly worried by artificial additives, preservatives and colorings in foods, by hormones and growth promoters in meats, and by the use of pesticides.
Dr Wheelock, who was addressing the Institute of Food Science and Technology in Dublin, said highly specialized methods of farming meant that farmers would take several years to respond to those changes in demand. Existing agricultural price structures and incentives did not encourage them to do so.
“At a time when food markets have become more volatile, agriculture has become more rigid”, he said. The time would come when British farmers would be unable to supply what supermarkets wanted, so the supermarkets would buy elsewhere.
Dr Wheelock called on the Government to immediately instigate a research and development program to provide solutions to the farmers’ dilemma, and in particular to determine how they can produce leaner meat and milk with a lower fat content.