Monday, February 9, 2009


During times of plenty there is a wide choice regarding the type of foods consumers wish to buy suiting the needs and palates of every body in the family. To add to this, there is always the option of 'eating out' in places where wide variety of foods are served on a platter. In the western world food sector was relatively insulated from inflation till recently and spurt in prices became discernible only during early 2008 when fossil fuel cost shot through the roof touching $147 a barrel with the attendant fall out on almost all aspects of daily life. The spiraling price situation is further aggravated by ever increasing land prices and cost of staple food grains, fruits, vegetables and other foods. Some of the basic foods like milk, butter, bread and meat are likely to continue to register higher prices as the input costs for their production also have risen sharply.

It is irrational to divert almost 40% of the grain grown in a country like UK as feed material and naturally meat prices are bound to go up in sympathy with that of the grains. Same is true with dairy products also. The economic melt down being experienced across the globe is bound to exert pressure on the disposable income of middle class families and the choices vis-a-vis purchase of foods are likely to shift to more basic foods putting the future of the processed foods industry at stake. Already there are signs that many American families are resorting to home baking pushing bakery products sales down. Same trend could become perceptible in other sectors also as people become more and more cost conscious with shrinking incomes. Unemployment figures in many countries are reaching staggering proportions, adding further to the human misery. Super markets are being forced to expand their portfolio of budget foods while demand for premium, value based and niche foods declines. Biggest casualty may be the organic food industry as their products are always priced significantly higher than the main stream products.

An unintended consequence of the deteriorating economic scenario may be a renewed interest in GM foods as they can be cheaper than the conventionally raised crops. While GM crops are cleared in some countries, many others view these foods with lot of reservation due to insufficient data on safety of consumption and environmental hazards in wide scale adoption of this technology. The debate about the safety of these foods is most likely to be won by the pro-GM lobby because of the latest economic compulsions. Those sitting on the fence are likely to go for GM foods which only can, probably, offer cheap staple foods in the coming years. If that happens one can expect spurt in investment on GM crops and stimulate their production on a scale not seen so far. It is another matter that GM technological knowledge is monopolized by a handful of transnational companies with very little available through public funded institutions. Besides, most of the technological know how is confined to a few crops of commercial importance. Probably the present economic down turn may give more impetus to develop appropriate GM technologies for some of the important staple crops. Similarly many consumers may be won over by the irradiation technology which is still viewed with suspicion because irradiation will cut down food spoilage very significantly making the food cheaper. While this may be good news for common man from the economic point of view, whether it it desirable from the health angle is a million dollar question!


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