Recently, Peter Alexander and Frances Cossar of the RUGS team participated in the Agricultural Economics Society annual conference in Warwick. Several of the presentations and workshops delved into questions pertinent to the RUGS projects including waste in the food system, obesity and changing UK diets, as well as the role of food prices in food security and changing diets.
Understanding problems of waste in the food system need to be improved. Only 10% of food is wasted by consumers after retail; more waste is due to over-consumption and loss during transport and processing. Dr Peter Alexander, along with researchers from across European universities, NGOs and private companies, led a workshop improving the definitions of food waste and losses, in order to better target the attention of policy makers, food producers, private sector, and consumers. Discarded food waste is important, but not the only (or even most important) change that consumers could make. A number of small changes could make a cumulatively substantial impact to reducing waste, such as lower meat consumption, switch from beef to chicken, and less over-consumption.
Is increasing the price of food that is bad for us going to solve the growing obesity problem in the UK? This was one of the questions discussed in a workshop on Tackling Obesity, chaired by Tim Lloyd (Bournemouth University). It is received wisdom amongst economists that individuals’ food consumption varies very little when prices change. Everyone needs to eat, even if the cost of buying the food increases. This calls into question whether taxes or subsidies on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods in our diet are the most effective policy tool to tackle obesity. Obesity rates are rising across the world, and no country has successfully reversed this upward trend. By some estimates, more people die due to over-nutrition than undernutrition in development countries. A range of policy ‘nudges’ – consumer education, food labelling, voluntary and compulsory regulation in the food industry – could be considered alongside price incentives in order to promote. This spectrum of potential policy actions will be food for thought as the RUGS project aims to consider how create a food system which is resilient and provides quality food to UK citizens.
Several other presenters at the conference shared their work on understanding the relationship between global and domestic food systems and diets. Neil Chalmers (University of Aberdeen) has been looking at data on UK households to understand the impact changes to price and individuals’ income has on consumption of sustainable diets. At the global scale, Hao Lan (Xi-an Jiaotong-Liverpool University) is looking into evidence on the differences across developed and emerging economies in how much volatility in global markets impacts upon domestic prices. And, Fernando Agra-Lorenzo (SRUC/University of Glasgow) brought interesting data work to show that policies to protect domestic producers from price volatility, such as mandatory written contracts for the dairy sector within the EU, seem to have been effective in reducing this source of vulnerability in the food production system in the UK.
It was a stimulating conference, full of ideas to feed into our work on the RUGS project. More details of the program can be found here: https://www.aes.ac.uk/page.asp?ID=3 .