Lee Clarke: What does the looming butter shortage say about our approach to food?

mince pies
mince pies

Now that we have entered November and the spooky Halloween season is behind us, there’s surely only one thing on our minds – Christmas. It is a season that finds some of its deepest roots in food – whether it’s family memories around the dinner table eating your mum’s homemade stuffing; or saying yes to that mince pie and cream even though you’re sure that if you have any more food you might burst.

But some of these memories may very well be under threat this year as the dairy industry faces a very real shortage of butter which will hit the cost and availability of mince pies, Christmas cake, brandy butter and cream. The price of butter has risen by 20% in the UK alone in the past year; while France has seen the cost rise a staggering 96% in the same period and global prices have risen 60%.

The boss of Arla, a major dairy company, was recently quoted saying “At Christmas time there will simply not, in Europe, be enough butter and cream around”. The shortage is a result of a number of factors, but key among them is that many farmers ‘hit the brakes’ in 2016 when milk prices dropped and many farmers have actually begun leaving the industry entirely as prices have slumped amid heavy price competition among supermarkets trying to fight off the rise of discounter supermarkets Aldi and Lidl.

The prospect of higher prices is troubling for us as consumers – at Prévost we have already had to begin using alternatives to butter in our cooking where possible, using oils instead – but it begs a big question about how we approach buying our food, and whether it’s really sustainable.

We all love a great deal, and for many families especially it is difficult to turn away from cheaper and easier options, but perhaps what we are seeing now is the results of our continued desire for cheaper and cheaper prices. As supermarkets fight for the cheapest price, they offer dairy farmers less and less for their products and as a result hundreds are leaving the industry entirely – some family-run farms that have been sustainably producing for decades are closing their doors.

We can apply this same thinking to local businesses around our towns and cities – it’s great to see the success of new ventures like Stoneworks, Puzzles and the local chain Bewitched as a result of local support – but it’s crucial we keep this up and encourage new independent businesses to open in our city and support those already here.

Sometimes that means paying a little more or going out of your way, but we do it because we enjoy the quality of the product that business sells – whether it’s coffee, food, or otherwise. Let’s hope our dairy farmers get the support they need and butter will be back on the menu soon!

Lee Clarke is head chef at Prévost in Priestgate, Peterborough www.prevostpeterborough.co.uk