Vital Foods are Too Dear


From Medicine Today and Tomorrow  November 1937

(Director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution ; formerly Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture)

The work of the investigators, followed up by the observations of the public health officers, have left us in no doubt as to the foodstuffs that are required to repair the malnutrition prevailing among large sections of our population. Viewed broadly, the national dietary contains insufficient amounts of milk and milk products, and of green vegetables and fruit. More eggs, meat, and other livestock products are desirable, and also more fish; but milk and fresh vegetables are the most accessible and the most valuable of the pro­tective foods, and the dangers of malnutrition (as distinct from undernutrition) would be removed if the ordinary family’s allowance of food contained a reasonable proportion of these commodities.

It is to be noted that these necessary foods are products of our own country, items in the normal output of our farms and market gardens. Fresh milk— and it is only fresh milk that is valuable in this connexion – is wholly produced at home, though a large proportion of the products arising from milk— butter, cheese, and condensed milk— are imported. Of eggs and meat the imports are considerable: we import about as much fresh beef as we kill at home, together with a good deal in tins, and we import about one-third of the eggs we eat. The importation of fruit and vegetables is considerable, but, except for the important matter of oranges, each of those materials that are essential to health are part of the regular output of our land.

We can even go farther, and affirm that the articles so needed—milk and livestock products, fruit and vege­tables—are just those most congenial to our conditions of soil and climate. In England we grow wheat, and in certain areas we grow it economically and of good quality; but north of a line stretching roughly from Exeter to York wheat is not a very safe crop nor able to compete with wheat from Canada or Australia.

A Matter of Price —

Sugar production is avowedly an uncommercial proposition in this country, though some of the best land is given up to it. But our humid climate favours, on the one hand, grass— which is the basis of milk and livestock production— and, on the other hand, vegetables. Also, apples, plums, cherries, and small fruit flourish in most of the English counties, more especially in the east and south-east.

This being the case, why does the national dietary go short of these desirable foods which are producible at home? In the main it is a matter of price, although defects in education and in housewifery are contributory factors.

When incomes are restricted, as they are in the classes that exert the largest purchasing power in the country, people instinctively buy the foods that will give them energy most cheaply. These, at least, will keep the machine running and enable the day’s work to be done; if nutritional disorders follow, they are not immediately recognized as due to food.

— and Calories

Now, in bread or oatmeal and dried peas and beans you can buy from 600 to 800 calories for a penny, whereas a pennyworth of milk supplies only one hundred, and a penny egg about 80 calories. Again, a penny­worth of potatoes will contain nearly ten times as many calories as a pennyworth of cabbage.

One need not labour the point—the cereals and pulses are by far the cheapest sources of energy; milk, eggs, and green vegetables are among the dearest. The practical problem, then, becomes what steps can be taken to enable British agriculture to supply the desiderated foods more cheaply.

Our farmers can supply what is wanted, and will do so if the prices they can obtain are remunerative. Clearly they do not consider present rates sufficient, for, though the number of milch cows has been increasing since the Milk Marketing Board was started, there was a small but significant drop in production last year. Again, the area under vegetable crops (excluding potatoes) decreased by 34,600 acres in 1937, a decline of nearly 19 per cent. The price the producers receive is, therefore, too low to encourage the needed increase of production; at the same time, the price the consumer is called upon to pay is too high to stimulate demand.

It is, in fact, in these commodities that the spread between wholesale and retail prices is at its maximum, from 100 per cent, upwards.

Milk stands in a category by itself, for its sale is now controlled throughout the country by the Milk Marketing Board, to which the Legislature has granted a monopoly. There is a parallel board of Milk Wholesalers, and by agreement between the two boards prices are fixed for the farmer and the public.

Approximately, the farmer receives a shilling a gallon for milk sold as such, the consumer pays from two shillings to half a crown in different parts of the country. But the shilling a gallon has drawn from farmers more milk than can be sold at the consumers’ price, and this surplus has to be sold cheaply to manufacturers of cheese, butter, condensed milk, etc. So low does this price fall at certain seasons that the Government accords a subsidy to help the farmers’ receipts, yet this surplus milk has become so plentiful that some is being exported.

However, with the deduction on surplus milk, the all-round price to the farmer (made up of what is sold as whole milk and what goes to the factory) is now checking further increase in production.

Naturally there is considerable indignation among the public at the paradox of a high price for milk coupled with a give-away price for the large surplus. But since the Milk Marketing Board represents farmers who regard the high price for liquid milk as essential, and the Wholesalers’ Board is not kindly disposed to schemes for reducing the costs of distribution, such as municipalization of the milk supply, the situation is more or less at a deadlock. The Government does, however, promise an extension of the provision of cheap milk to expectant and nursing mothers and to necessitous school-children, a procedure which helps to relieve the pressure of the surplus.

No Benefits from Gluts

For fruit and vegetables Marketing Boards, or monopolies, have not been constituted, so that there are no legislative means of dealing with the tacit policy of shopkeepers to maintain high retail prices. It is an unfortunate characteristic of both fruit and vegetable crops to fluctuate very widely in yield and for the big yields to occur simultaneously over most of the country. When this “glut” occurs, the wholesale price falls below the cost of harvesting and marketing, but the retail shopkeeper is averse to any effort to expand the market by a cheap price. There is no organization to advertise and get rid of the glut as a cheap line.

In August of this year jamming plums were selling in Evesham at 2s. the pot of 72 lb.; in the London sub­urban shops the price did not fall below 3d.-4d. a pound.

The sort of increase in the grower’s returns that makes all the difference between profit and loss to him is but a trifle in the price paid by the consumer.

There are two ways only by which the public can get these perishable commodities cheaply. One is the resuscitation and general creation of the municipal markets where the producers in the locality, and dealers and commission agents who are willing to take a small profit on a quick turnover, can rent stalls at a low rate. In such markets where the housewife selects her goods, pays for them, and carries them away, cheap prices prevail, as anyone can learn in the few such markets that remain in London. But in so far as the houswife wants to order by telephone small quantities to be delivered in a hurry and on credit, the retail shop at high prices remains indispensable.

The alternative is the growth of the retail co-operative store, a movement which is undoubtedly spreading, bui still makes comparatively slow headway among the black-coated workers and the middle class.

Price-Fixing a Failure

Such policies—the expansion of municipal market: and of co-operative stores—do not seem to offer promist of any considerable or rapid rectification of the prict level of these perishable products. Their effect will however, be real and cumulative, and helpful both tc producers and consumers. Policies of fixing prices b) authority are condemned to failure, so long at least a: the present structure of society exists; that has beet the lesson of war-time regulations and of subsequen emergency actions in other countries.