The price we pay for food at the checkout doesn’t include the costs of the damage it can do to human health and wellbeing and to the environment. These ‘external’ costs are high for some food products (e.g. intensively reared beef) and low for others (e.g. certain organic vegetables). The costs of treating food-related illnesses such as obesity and diabetes run to billions of pounds, and so do the costs of the UK’s food system to the environment.
Some say that adding these costs to the price of food is unfair, because even more people will find it hard to afford. Does this mean that a sustainable food system is unaffordable? Should we embark on a ‘race to the bottom,’ where ever more unsustainable inputs are used to drive down the costs of production (whilst ignoring the environmental and health costs)?
Arguably, those are the wrong questions. Instead, we should ask: are people’s wages and social safety-nets too low for us to afford a sustainable food system? And if the answer is ‘yes, they are’, the solutions lie in economic and social policies.
Poverty is both a cause and consequence of environmental degradation, and it’s no coincidence that there is extreme unsustainability and extreme inequality in our food system. In the UK around 11% of our workforce is employed in the food system, most in low-wage and insecure jobs. The majority of their wages are spent on the basics: eating, heating and housing. To avoid paying higher wages, food businesses are incentivised to drive food prices further downwards. It’s a vicious cycle: poor workers require cheap food, which requires poor workers, which requires cheap food…
To keep their costs low, food producers must continually reduce their input costs, in particular energy and labour. This means replacing people and animals with fossil fuels in the form of farm machinery and fertilisers, which are energy-dense and cheap. The linear flow of energy – from oil and gas deposits to our fields – is a large part of the environmental costs that don’t show up on the price tag of the food on supermarket shelves or fast-food menus. Therefore, poverty and inequality are the enemies of the environment, as well as the result of its mistreatment.
Hunger can’t be eradicated by a cheap food policy, any more than it can be fixed with philanthropy and food banks. It’s only when we tackle the root causes of poverty – by seeking economic solutions – that everyone in the UK will be able to afford nutritious and culturally appropriate food that doesn’t cost the earth.
This summary draws heavily on a blog by Steven Devlin of New Economics Foundation for the Food Ethics Council. The full blog is available here. https://www.foodethicscouncil.org/is-the-price-right/
Note: key questions to ask and/ or top tips
How best to ensure that the true cost of food is reflected in its price, and is it fair to put food prices up when the biggest burden rests on the shoulders of the lowest paid?
Speaker Richie Hardwicke recommends Eat Forum for video summaries of big debates