There’s no such thing as cheap food

By Dan Crossley, executive director The Food Ethics Council

From price wars to round pound deals and special offers, we are surrounded by the notion of cheap food. But what we pay for food at the checkout rarely reflects its real, or ‘true cost’. Our cheap food system is currently being propped up by environmental damage, low wage workers, farm animal suffering and the costs of diet-related ill health to the National Health Service.

Take an avocado, flown from Peru to the UK, refrigerated in a distribution centre, then packaged and driven to your local supermarket. The price tag may reflect what it cost the supermarket to purchase it but how about the greenhouse gas emissions that result from air freighting it, or the long-term impacts of irrigating this (very) thirsty crop? For every £1 we pay for food and drink at the checkout, it’s been suggested that there is (at least) £1 of hidden costs – externalities that the taxpayer picks up. So, should we move towards ‘true cost’ food?

Reluctantly I think the answer has to be yes. I say reluctantly because it’s sad that we have to put a financial value on things like the health of our environment, when we should value it for its own intrinsic sake. But I say yes, because genuinely ‘true cost’ food would, with one fell swoop, mean that healthy, sustainable, fair, humane food becomes (relatively) ‘less expensive’ than unhealthy, unsustainable food. Organic food and farming would be one of the winners in this scenario. If we rely on price signals, then that’s surely a sensible way to go. Arguably the government has made a baby step in that direction already via the sugary drinks levy (internalising a fraction of the diet-related ill health costs currently picked up by the NHS). With ideas such as a meat tax being banded around, will we see further moves towards paying a true cost?

Even more fundamentally perhaps, we need to get beyond the notion that ever cheaper food is somehow a good thing. The reason so many people can’t afford to eat in this country is not because prices aren’t cheap enough – it’s because there are too many gaps in the social security net, because people aren’t paid a real living wage and because we are slipping into a two-tier food system. Rather than being stuck in ‘let’s make it affordable’, let’s reframe the debate to be about how we can help everyone shape a food system that works for all.

Crucially, one of the main benefits of a true cost approach would be that the environment and social costs are no longer hidden, and there is therefore a ready-made incentive to drive negative impacts down. So, in the long-run, moving to true cost food could benefit people, animals and the planet.

It will take time, public support and political backing to move away from the cheap food narrative. Taxing those who pollute more, or who use damaging farming or employment practices, could go some way to open up and address the issue. But for people to favour foods with lower ‘true costs’ we need truthful answers about where our food comes from and how it’s produced. This transparency test could be the catalyst for much needed change.

Dan Crossley is the executive director of the Food Ethics Council. He has worked on food sustainability issues for over a decade, leading projects on food and farming, sustainable diets, animal welfare, carbon labelling and household food insecurity. The ‘true cost of food’ is a growing movement to account for the social and environmental impact of food production and consumption when thinking about prices.

10 responses to “There’s no such thing as cheap food

  1. I so agree with this. Until we have a fairer society those of us who can, should endeavour to shop as ethically and as environmentally as soundly as we can, even when we have to pay more.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. But we need to educate folks at lot more to get rid of the ready foods mindset and get them back into the kitchen cooking good wholesome foods, so they can see how their health and the enviroment improves.

  3. In the area where I live there is a high level of people on benefits and presumably the ones meant by the “social security net” part of the post. It doesn’t seem to stop these people being able to afford takeaways every night, giving their kids the money to queue up in takeaways at 4pm when the schools kick out and smoking 20 fags a day. They wouldn’t know, or want to know, an avocado, organic or not, if it hit them in the head.

  4. You rightly point to the problem of social security gaps (Universal Credit??) but what, if anything, might Riverford be thinking about inclusion? I totally agree that we need to reshape the debate – but what does that mean specifically? It’s too easy to put out these narratives – they mean nothing unless forming part of an action. Imagine living on Universal Credit with all its sanctions … imagine not being near local shops where fresh food is available. Imagine living day to day in a highly stressful financial environment. Everyone wants to eat fresh food – but how does any of this work? It’s so easy to categorise and demonise. How do marginalised communities become included – not just in some fantasised future, but now?

    I’m a Riverford customer and have been for a few years and even I, as someone who is not on benefits but retirement, am struggling to absorb price rises.

    I can do it, and will do (with some difficulty) – I’m part of your middle class base. But I seriously think Riverford might need to think beyond this base because your message (and amazing food) is so important for all our futures.

    • Hello Gill,

      Thank you so much for your continued support of organic farming. As we grow, pack and deliver our own veg boxes we can keep costs as low as possible whilst still giving both growers, pickers, packers and customers a fair deal.

      We would like organic food to be as accessible as possible to everyone and support local food charities by donating produce to local food charities such as Foodcycle, which aims to strengthen communities by bringing people together around a healthy meal made using surplus food.

      Because we sell direct to customers and plan our crops accordingly, every vegetable already has a home before it is even planted. However, there are occasions when a batch of fruit or veg simply can’t go into the boxes. It may too ripe, or partly damaged and we have a system in place to make sure it doesn’t go to waste. Every week, 4 local charities, including foodbanks and community interest groups, collect our grade-out veg and use this to make healthy meals, teach cooking skills and encourage fun, friendship and connection.

      • Thanks so much for listening to my concerns and taking the time to respond. That’s appreciated! It’s heartening to hear of your work with local charities – great!

  5. No amount of education (from on high) is going to change the mindset of a person who is struggling in poor housing (and that usually means a horrible kitchen), working irregular hours and needing to top up their income with late (delayed) benefit payments and trips to food banks when their children need feeding. However, some of my middle class friends who congratulate themselves that they have saved pennies on milk and that by “shopping around” they can feed their family on less than £50pw do need to have a rethink. Whilst they’re doing that they are reinforcing the illusion that it’s possible to live reasonably well on Universal Credit, if only one had their intelligence and diligence (and their clean storage space, their efficient kitchens, their car to do the shopping and carrying (try bringing back a week’s family shop, using the bus service). By paying more, i.e. the right price for food, we are insisting that this should be the normal price and it is this, not supermarket superprices, that should form part of public policy calculations for levels of benefit. Rant of the day done.

  6. Having watched the final episode of Mediterranean with Simon Reeve I am horrified by the plastic farms of Spain and the wicked abuse of the immigrant workers. I buy organic as much as possible but shall view with suspicion and avoid any products labelled as coming from Spain. Perhaps we all should write to the big supermarket chains to ask for their comments on this and what they are going to do about it.
    I constantly talk about the benefits of organic to my friends who immediately say ” What about the poor?”. I see that as no excuse for those who can afford to not buying organic.

    • Hi Althea,

      Thanks for your comments and feedback.

      Just to assure you, none of our produce is grown by any of the large-scale Spanish farms which were featured in the programme by Simon Reeve.
      We have a long term working relationship with our Spanish farmers who we know well and trust. We visit them regularly and feel comfortable with their ethical practises.

      If you’d like to read a bit more about them, you can follow this link to our blog: https://www.riverford.co.uk/blog/2018/02/02/road-trip-across-spain-meeting-new-long-term-growers/

      Kind regards,

      Riverford

      • I didn’t think for a moment that Riverford would produce food in those conditions. That is why I buy from Riverford. I just hope the programme made people think about how and where their food comes from.

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