House of LordsLeon Neal/PA Wire

Lady Mar, a Countess who inherited her seat in the House of Lords, has stunned commentators by announcing her brilliant solution to stop Brits from wasting so much food: she thinks that the answer is to make food more expensive.

It has overtones of Marie Antoinette, but what was she trying to say, and does she have a point?


Too cheap

Her comments in the House of Lords came during a question on the amount of food that is wasted. This comes hot on the heels of an Institution of Mechanical Engineers report last week that highlighted that half of food produced in Britain is wasted.

Lady Mar said: "My Lords, most food waste is generated by households. Does the noble Lord agree that food is too cheap in this country? If it cost the price of production in most cases and thus gave farmers a bit more of a profit, householders-housewives, perhaps-who prepare food would be more careful about wasting it."

On the one hand, clearly food waste is a serious business. According to the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, we throw away 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink from our homes every year in the UK - half of which was perfectly edible.

Wasting this food costs the average household £480 a year, rising to £680 for a family with children, the equivalent of around £50 a month. You could argue that if we paid more for this food we would value it more highly, waste less of it, and save money overall.

Out-of-touch

However, this blithely ignores the realities of life for most people in this country. In the last three months of 2012, food prices increased at a shocking 3.8%. There have also been warnings, including one from Waitrose, that this is set to continue - and possibly get worse, as we reel from the combined effects of droughts around the world and excessive rain in the UK.

Stephen Robertson, British Retail Consortium Director General, said: "Food price rises are accelerating. Costs for commodities such as wheat and corn have eased off since peaking earlier in the year but these pressures, coupled with the impact of poor harvests, are continuing to filter through to fresh foods, with meat, fish and vegetables hit particularly hard."

Vulnerable

This hits the most vulnerable people hardest. Dr Ros Altmann, Director-General of over-50s specialists Saga warns that: "This is a significant problem for many older people and lower income households who spend a much larger proportion of their income on food and with energy price increases in the pipeline the pressures on these groups will get worse."

Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) adds: "Low income families, already struggling to make ends meet, have little scope to trim their spending habits when necessities such as food, fuel and clothes consume the vast majority of their limited incomes. As the price of essentials such as these rise sharply, poorer families have to make tough choices, not between luxuries and essentials, but between one basic good and another."

There are just so many families in the current environment who are already struggling to feed themselves. Higher food prices would simply punish them, and tip them over the edge so they end up relying on charities for help.

Crushed

During the debate Rural Affairs minister Lord de Mauley effectively quashed the suggestion, saying he "would not wish anything in the way of increases in food prices on consumers".

Food waste is clearly a problem, but higher prices are not the solution. The issues have been identified by the Love Food Hate Waste campaign as the fact we cook too much food and we don't use it in time.

These are problems of lack of knowledge: many people don't know the right amount of food to cook in order to feed their family, and don't have the knowledge to effectively use leftovers.

Meanwhile, many are not equipped with the tools they need in order to plan their food for the week when they are shopping, and many are confused by 'use by' dates into thinking food has gone off when it is still perfectly safe to eat.

Perhaps the government needs to focus on closing this knowledge gap: making it easier for people to know how to make the most of the food they have and reduce the amount they waste - rather than putting basic necessities out of the reach of thousands more people.

But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.