There's a lot of talk but is there a real shift in consumer attitudes to fair trade and food provenance? Or is it all just hype?

This week representatives from the food industry, government and academia agreed there has been a true move forward in consumer thinking about ethical business practice, where food comes from and the environment.

But time and again at the Westminster Diet & Health seminar on food provenance and genetic modification, the issues of price and the hypocrisy of supermarkets took centre stage.

"Only a minority of consumers are prepared to pay a premium," said Jenny Dawkins, head of corporate responsibility research at Ipsos MORI.

Minister of state for sustainable farming and food Lord Rooker added: "Where food comes from and how it is produced is high on the public agenda, probably higher than it has ever been.

"However, people say they want good standards of animal welfare and food close to where they live but they want it cheap, which undermines some of these issues."

Supermarkets, especially the big four, were accused of being at the centre of price suppression and therefore creating the demand for cheap food at the expense of a fair price for all producers, including those in the UK.

"The fair trade supply chain should be as relevant to a dairy farmer in Cheshire as a coffee grower in the third world. It is hypocrisy that retailers sell fair trade products while reducing prices for milk," argued Robin Tapper, food chain relations manager at the National Farmers' Union.

It is clear, however, that consumers do want to do their bit for the environment and ethics. Research from Ipsos MORI shows that concern for the environment is rising. Asked what is the most important issue facing Britain today, 12% of the 1,000 adults questioned said the environment, up from 6% last year.

Nine in 10 of those questioned in another Ipsos MORI survey said companies had a responsibility to check their suppliers around the world were behaving ethically.

"There is clearly a strength of opinion that companies should be taking their responsibilities seriously," said Dawkins. "And 16% of the population are CR activists who have even higher expectations and are more engaged."

Indeed, nearly one in six people have deliberately limited purchasing due to environmental and social concerns, but among CR activists this figure rises to 46%.

Many people are making ad hoc ethical purchases even though they perceive fair trade, organic and food with provenance as too expensive to purchase regularly. Some 65% had purchased a fair trade product in the past year while 62% had bought an organic item.

"I am confident that the future is in fair trade," declared Harriet Lamb, executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation. "Fair trade should be the mainstream and I believe we can achieve this."

However, Brad Hill, consumer policy manager food retail at The Co-operative Group, warned that only half the population recognises fair trade. "We have a long way to go to build awareness."

This is where government could play a bigger part, argued Lamb. "Fair trade is a voluntary initiative driven by the public but government could do much more to support it," she said.

Rooker stressed that govern­ment wants to help provide consumers with choice. But he warned consumers it was up to them to ensure businesses were profitable. "What you don't use you'll lose. It's as simple as that."