‘Cheap’ food is costing the Earth, and our health

Emily Lewis-Brown – 7th April 2016 – Published in The Ecologist

1101090831_400

Food has never been more affordable for middle class families in rich countries. But it comes at a high cost: the impact of industrial food production on health, environment and society has never been greater as Patrick Holden explained to Emily Lewis-Brown.

The post war drive for food security through industrial farming and ever-cheaper food has, ironically, put both our health and the future of farming at risk.

Food prices have been kept artificially low, while the true costs of food production have been obscured – and are increasingly unaffordable. A conference took place in April in San Francisco designed to put this right: The True Cost of American Food.

Patrick Holden – dairy farmer, sustainable food campaigner and organiser of the conference – believes that sustainable farming is being held back by the way that food prices are kept artificially low through mechanisms which hide the real cost of foods and place those costs elsewhere – on communities, our health, and the environment.

“When we unravel the hidden costs of food and farming, we find that our food systems are generating diets which we pay for many times over in hidden ways”, he says. “They are making us sick and degrading the environment, which is vital to the future of our food security and health.

“Everyone has a right to good food that is affordable and nutritious, but the belief that making food cheap was the most important goal, facilitated damage to our natural environment and public health. This was made possible by cheap oil and technological innovation. It was hard for consumers to see the changes to the food we eat, as companies increasingly obscured the story of how our food is produced.

“If you told the real story of farming, what goes on behind closed doors would be upsetting. It’s covered up by brands with images of outdoor mixed farms, with cows in meadows and hedgerow-lined hay fields blooming with wild flowers.”

Milk cheaper than bottled water

Patrick had an urban childhood, like millions of other people who live in cities now, but his family moved back to the land in the 1970s to live on a farm. His deep understanding of agricultural practice developed from farming his mixed dairy farm in Wales, where he still farms as sustainably as possible.

That means he knows from personal experience the plight faced by many farmers: “Dairy farmers are now slaves to the commodity market. To survive economically, they need more and more cows, kept more and more intensively. Milk is sold for much less than the cost of its production – it costs less than a bottle of water now. How on earth can this be? Milk is a vital source of nutrition and farmers should be paid for the true cost of its production.”

cheapfood

Of course for many families it’s great that we spend less now than ever before on food: most of us spend less than 10% of our disposable income on food – and this is seen as a good thing. But that cheap food comes at a high price:

“The apparent cheapness of food is an illusion, because behind the price tag lie a series of hidden costs, none of which are reflected in the price of food. These hidden costs are paid in damage to the environment, depletion of the Earth’s resources, and public health.”

Adding up the impacts

Patrick is involved in research with the UN’s The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative that traces the true costs of food. But to make all those statistics real, he says, take a carton of milk, and consider the costs of its that we have to pay for without realizing it – on top of the suffering that’s routinely inflicted on animals under industrial farming systems.

“You’ve got damage to the environment from the pollution of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, degradation of the soil and declining biodiversity, along with the contribution that agriculture makes to climate change.

“Then there’s a high cost in human health, especially, at the moment, in the rise of untreatable infectious diseases from the over-use of antibiotics in humans and farm animals. But this also includes the costs of the obesity epidemic caused by industrialised diets.

“And there are significant social costs – agricultural workers suffer unduly from labour abuses across the world which sometimes extend to the condition of slavery. These costs are not currently paid in the price of our food and this is not being recognized by politicians nor properly addressed by the people who should be addressing them.”

The True Cost of American Food

What is needed, he says, is a ‘True Cost’ account of our food system. That’s one of the core missions of the Sustainable Food Trust, which Patrick launched in 2013 at a major conference on the topic in London, bringing together the world’s leading experts on True Cost Accounting.

“For obvious reasons all farmers have to follow the best business case”, says Patrick. “But right now if you farm intensively and cause damage to the environment and public health, you will make more money than if you switch to sustainable methods. The aim of the San Francisco conference is to do something about that – we want to create the conditions where producing food in a sustainable way is the most profitable option for producers and the most affordable for consumers.

“We believe there are many opportunities to intervene and shift the dial in this direction. For instance, we can redirect Farm Bill subsidies to favour sustainable practices, we can tax farming which causes damage to the environment or public health, we can harness the power of the financial community to preferentially invest in sustainable agriculture and food companies.

“It’s all about carrots and sticks, we want to encourage the right kind of farming which benefits the environment and public health and discourages food systems which lead to climate change, pollution and disease.”

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s