SHOPPERS could face higher weekly grocery bills as farmers last night warned the days of cheap food are numbered.
On the eve of the Royal Welsh Show, Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers’ Union, said consumers could expect more food price rises.
Shoppers have already seen the cost of bread and milk increase as a result of droughts in Australia and dairy farmers in Europe stopping milk production in reaction to lower market prices.
And farmers have now warned that further price rises at the till were likely, especially with the prospect of further extreme global weather conditions on the horizon.
Mr Kendall, pictured, claimed that rising food prices would be good for the rural economy, the countryside, the environment and the developing World.
But Welsh consumer experts have warned that if food prices rose across the board, sparking higher inflation rates without a corresponding rise in income, people’s health could ultimately suffer.
Mr Kendall, an arable farmer from East Bedfordshire, said, “Food has never been cheaper. We currently spend less than 9% of our income on food compared with nearly 25% 40 years ago.
“We don’t want consumers to think farmers are being greedy. The costs of production and the market will dictate prices and you can’t have cheap food without damaging your security of supply or the environment.
“It’s been a disappointing 20 years and I’m glad we’re moving out of the era of cheap food. I for one will not miss it.”
The cost of bread has already risen by about 10p a loaf because of increases in the price of wheat, following poor harvests caused by droughts in Australia and North America. Analysts warn it could rise a further 5p a loaf.
Meanwhile the drive for cheap milk has forced thousands of farmers across Europe to stop milk production. As a result the wholesale cost of powdered milk has increased by 148% in 12 months and butter prices are 82% up over the year.
This summer’s extreme weather, underlined on the weekend when a month’s worth of rain fell in hours and swathes of land were covered in floodwater, is also playing havoc with arable food production, and growers in eastern England have reported crops rotting in the fields.
Potato blight has hit many parts of the country, including Pembrokeshire, so consumers can expect to pay more for the staple vegetable this autumn.
Mr Kendall said evidence of the dramatic effects on food production were clear as he drove to Builth Wells for the Royal Welsh Show with his wife Emma and three young children.
“We saw the devastation as we came – land underwater, the stock on high ground, rivers in torrent and wheat crops devastated,” he said.
“It’s a real crisis and it’s a dramatic change in the weather from last year to this, and the economic impacts of the changeable weather are coming in from around the world.
“Food supply will be less predictable.”
Mr Kendall, who holds a degree in agricultural economics, added that other factors driving rising food prices were the demand for crops for processing into biofuels to replace petrol and diesel and the emerging markets of Asia, where consumers were looking for a more Western diet.
He said, “I’m convinced that we are seeing a sea-change in world commodity markets, and we need to get the message across that that needs to be reflected in farm prices or we will see shortages sooner than we can possibly imagine.
“Retailers have got to sit up and realise that farmers won’t be in it for the long term unless they get a fair price for their produce.”
Rhys Evans, deputy director of the Welsh Consumer Council, said last night, “If the cost of living goes up but the money in a person’s wage packet does not reflect these inflationary rises, we could see that people – especially those with only a fixed budget to buy food – will compromise on quality and that could have consequences for their health.
“But if the price rises are not seen across all supermarkets, we would expect to see people shopping around, which could lead to supermarkets looking at new ways to reward consumer loyalty.”
The cost of the average shopping trolley has been in freefall in the last 20 years – it is now 7% cheaper than it was in 2000 and 15% cheaper than in 1990, according to the British Retail Consortium.
It is thought that the introduction of value brands and the rise of the cut-price supermarket has helped fuel this fall.
But, over the past 15 years retailers have been buying cheaper food from large-scale producers – rather than from small farms with higher production costs.
Richard Dodd, a spokesman for the BRC, which represents large retailers, said this trend was set to continue and the only significant price rises consumers were likely to see were seasonal ones, such as the current increases in the cost of bread or coffee.
He added, “The idea of there being some sort of seismic shift in food prices and what consumers have to pay shooting up is wrong.”
And Christine Welberry, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drink Federation, which represents food manufacturers, said, “We have seen a number of pressures on food prices and these will get passed on to the consumer, but whether this is the end of an era of cheap food is a lot harder to say.”