The True Cost of Food
PDF, available from the Sustainable Food Trust


In our last issue, HIP 105, Zelly Restorick covered a really great talk and discussion, held at The Beacon: Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trust spoke on local food issues.

His organisation publishes well-researched material on food sustainability issues, The True Cost of Food is an essential and detailed one that shows the ‘externalities’ associated with the production of our food. These costs are ones not passed to the consumer, but usually left as social and environmental costs. The Summary Report, entitled ‘The Hidden Cost of UK Food’, published November 2017, gives a good précis of the overall argument, as do the excellent graphics on the website.

Hidden costs, in their analysis, double the shop cost: for every pound we spend on food, another is left as a debt elsewhere, paid directly by neither the producers nor the consumers. With a spending total by the consumer of in excess of £102 billion, this creates a gross cost per annum of £204 billion. Of course, whilst a monetised approach to losses and externalities is an indispensable tool for lobbying corporations and governments, it is the breakdown of what these costs mean that may motivate people to question our current practices.

‘Pricing’ hidden costs needs to be cracked open. Like a lot of debt, some of the issues open a cavernous hole for the future, which, in resource and pollution terms equates to collapsing natural systems, causing, for example, shortages, huge health costs, and degradation of the ecology all our lives depend upon. In the tradition of ‘Think Global, Act Local’, I reviewed Andrew Simms’ book Ecological Debt in an early issue of HIP, which looks into this concept in global terms, and the SFT look ‘locally’, at the UK, in this report. A bald breakdown of cost elements in money terms, attaches to specific issues and most of these require regulation and compliance. To succeed, this must come from government, but also from local pressure groups and ‘woke’ industry leaders
and organisations.

A quarter of the costs hived off to never-never-land are classed as ‘natural capital degradation’ – this breaks down to include our excessive food waste, soil degradation (in mineral / carbon loss), half our overall water usage, and, the lions share, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Ten percent is biodiversity loss, though that is a ‘cash reckoning’ not a loss of lives across many species, which is surely higher and rising. Smaller costs relate to imports, subsidies for farmers, and a small part is the cost of regulation and research (both necessary, and probably in need of more not less input). It is easy to see how these all feed into costs paid by us, and regressively affect the poor disproportionately.

In money terms the biggest costs by far, at half the total, are ‘hidden’ (not paid at the checkout) food costs. Some of these relate to ill-health caused through food production methods, such as overuse of pesticides, rising anti-biotic resistance (consumed in food from over-medicated livestock), and cancers caused by nitrates that run-off into our water supply (much from the use of artificial fertilisers). Most is a bill created by food consumption related illnesses, which cost nearly £45 billion, straining the NHS and costing lives: heart and circulation issues, diabetes, malnutrition (the natural mineral wealth of our fruits and veg has halved), and obesity.

Most of these can’t simply be bought out of debt. We only have one planet, and we’re stretching its resources badly.

These problems do, though, have solutions we can impact on, which I hope will get many of us interested, concerned, and hopefully engaged. For example, by joining our Hastings Transition Town group, lobbying your MP, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and of course our local council. The time is right. All levels of government are meant to engage with sustainable food policies, and lobbying can goad them into taking the SFT more seriously. And, too, if extricating ourselves from the EU is to have positives, they’ll need to be fought for. The SFT, and other organisations, seek to alter, form and steer policy across the country and agribusiness. Similar opportunities may exist to derail our rulers’ neo-liberal adjustment plans and create positive opportunities to do better. Naturally, acting locally is imperative, and having a wider awareness is too. Whatever this country’s future, we need both a grassroots agenda and an objective look at long-term and genuine sustainable practice as well as a place on the world stage to be heard.

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