Have you ever asked yourself why an everyday “value” chicken can now be cheaper, pound for pound, than bread? Cheap chicken has become the “healthy” meat of choice for most shoppers and sales are booming, up 20% since 2000 in the UK. But is it really either cheap or healthy?
Producers who use intensive methods are not financially accountable for the harm they cause. The apparently cheap price tag of industrial chicken does not include any of the costs related to pollution of the environment, destruction of natural capital, greenhouse gas emissions or the damage to public health resulting from such systems. It turns out that low-cost chicken isn’t cheap at all.
By contrast, a pasture-fed organic chicken is now seen as a niche market option, because it costs more than three times as much. These chickens spend much of their lives outside. Their feed is grown without the use of chemical fertilisers and synthetic pesticides. And because they are healthy and happy, with stocking densities low enough to ensure that the birds derive a significant percentage of their nutritional requirements from grazed grass, worms and insects, they need no insurance drugs or antibiotics to stop them getting sick.
Despite the fact that sustainable poultry production systems deliver huge benefits to the environment and public health, the producers using these methods have no option but to compete on an unlevel playing field. Worse, we are paying for the damage caused by industrial food production in hidden ways, through taxes, in the form of misdirected subsidies from the common agricultural policy, through water pollution clean-up costs and through national health service treatment costs.
If the true cost of the factory bird was added to the price tag, it might even be greater than the pasture-raised organic bird.
So who’s to blame for this crazy state of affairs? It’s tempting to blame the farmers and food companies, but we farmers are stuck in an economic system that mainly rewards those who produce food at the cheapest price, as a result of which only those who are selling into high-end niche markets can afford to do the right thing.
The truth is this is a rigged, cheap food system that has two prices: the one you pay now and the one we all pay later. It’s a story that repeats with carrots, apples and peas, meat, milk and cheese. Even breakfast cereal. At some point we need to ask ourselves, why do we support such a destructive food system?
The good news is we do have the power to change it. We should insist that, in future, common agricultural policy payments should be available only to farmers whose practices benefit the environment and improve public health; we could tax chemical fertilisers and pesticides (just like sugar) and use the money to incentivise farmers to adopt more carbon-friendly soil management. We should insist that all food for schools, hospitals and care homes is locally and sustainably sourced. We could offer tax breaks for investors who finance sustainable food businesses. Finally, we should ensure that food workers are paid a living wage and have safer working conditions.
By making these choices, we would help create a fairer, sustainable and health-promoting food system that we all want to see for ourselves, our families and our community.
Patrick Holden is executive director of the Sustainable Food Trust. He produces an organic cheddar cheese from his 80-cow milking herd in west Wales.