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The cost of cheap food

Buried beneath the hype of supermarket price wars, lies the real cost of cheap food. Wildlife is under threat, waste food is stacking up, and farmers’ wallets are suffering. According to a new report, food is simply too cheap.

The study by environmental charity People Need Nature found that: “food is so cheap that around one third of all food and drink bought in the UK is thrown away.”

In a world that needs food banks to alleviate the pressures of poverty, surely driving down prices can only help. Far from it, according to the report.

The damage to wildlife

Both supermarkets and consumers are demanding cheap food, and farmers are feeling the pressure. Intensive farming practices, focused on the drive for low costs, are often inhospitable to wildlife. Although many farmers would be happy to see their fields brimming with nature, the need to get an increased yield puts them under pressure, and wildlife is all too often swept to one side.

The report’s author, Miles King, said: “Now farmers have the technology to produce food with the almost total exclusion of wildlife. This is a choice, at its core driven by our desire for cheaper and cheaper food.”

Farm slurry polluting rivers; sheep over-grazing in upland heaths; and herbicide-laced maize fields are all to blame for creating poor habitats for wildlife, according to the report. Large numbers of wildlife habitats have been completely lost, with 98% of the wildflower meadows present in 1940 no longer in existence.

The charity insists that we need to think much more about where food comes from, and how it has been produced. They said: “Those who push for ever-cheaper food are not interested in what sort of countryside we have in England.”

They highlight that farming has steadily taken its toll on wildlife since the end of the Second World War, when a scarcity of food across Europe led to a drive in cheap food production. Artificial fertilisers, pesticides, and new machinery all helped increase production at a time when it was most needed, but has caused major damage to wildlife populations.

Over half of all UK species are now in decline, with climate change and agriculture cited as the most prominent factors by a State of Nature study. The coalition of 50 organisations blames “intensive management of agricultural land” for 20% of all impact on species populations.

An RSPB managed farm set out to reverse the trend of species decline by developing new farming methods. They saw a very literal demonstration of the butterfly effect when the nature-friendly methods they used in food production directly resulted in the farm’s butterfly index increasing by 224%, compared to a national decline of 2%.

The price for farmers

Just as the needs of wildlife are all too often neglected to facilitate cheap food production, farmers also come low in the pecking order. People Need Nature claim that farmers are often earning less than the cost of production, and are reliant on subsidies. For every pound spent in a supermarket, only 9p goes to the farmer, and an average of 3p is lost for every litre of milk they produce. According to the study, supermarkets often charge suppliers when their products are placed on promotion, with the charges passed on to the farmers.

Chris Smaje co-owns a farm comprising of newly planted woodland, permanent pasture, and a small-scale commercial market garden. He believes that farms like his are rare in the UK due to low food and fuel costs coupled with high land and labour costs. He partially attributes the low cost of food to an “agricultural subsidy regime that systematically favours large-scale landownership and heavily mechanised cereal farming,” as well as the “market distortion introduced by the monopsony (buyer’s monopoly) of the supermarkets and other middlemen.”

Tackling waste food

Excess food creates a world of problems. In the process of growing earth’s wasted food and getting it on supermarket shelves, 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide is generated. As waste food stacks up, how is the problem being dealt with across the globe?

France has tackled the problem head-on, by banning supermarkets from throwing away leftover food. The threat of a €75,000 fine is firmly in place should shops refuse to donate excess to charity. The desire to cut food waste is catching on across Europe, with the European Parliament calling for legislation to halve food waste by 2030.

Ripples of change are making their way across the UK too, and people are starting to take a fresh look at how to treat waste food. The Real Junk Food Project has launched a network of ‘pay as you feel’ cafés in the UK, Europe and Australia. Online supermarket Ocado has now pledged leftover food to the project, donating items from cancelled customer orders.

Following the success of the cafés, the organisation has now opened the first ‘pay as you feel’ supermarket in Leeds. Customers can get a square meal for next to nothing, by shopping for food unwanted by supermarkets and otherwise destined for landfill.

Waste food is even going digital, with food saving apps making their way into the virtual world. Too Good To Go allows restaurants to offer surplus meals to hungry customers at a discounted price, and claims to have avoided 27 tonnes of CO2 emissions by the beginning of 2017. Users can also pay it forward, donating leftover meals to those in need.

The future of food

These initiatives might go some way to preventing food ending up in landfills, but what of the damage done by intensive farming methods? To protect wildlife, the countryside, and farmers, Miles King suggests a fundamental change in the way England approaches food production.

He proposes a new system of growing food, one which benefits nature and helps communities. As part of this new system, he suggests that landowners should be fairly paid when they provide the public with certain benefits, such as clean water, reduced flooding, and wildlife.

Food poverty remains a crucial issue, but People Need Nature suggest that making cheap food available to everyone is: “the equivalent of having a flat rate of income tax.” Instead of making cheap food universally available, they propose that those who need help should instead receive financial support from the government.

They said: “Is it really that radical to suggest that the public purse should support the poorest in society so they can have access to healthy, sustainably sourced food?”

England spends the lowest proportion of national income on food of any country in the EU - 15% less than the European average. The charity believes that a radical shift in mentality is needed in order to better protect wildlife, give fair pay to farmers, and reduce waste: “Do we continue down the road we have been on for the last 70 years, searching for new ways to make food cheaper at the point of sale? Or do we want to change direction and support farmers in producing high quality food that is produced in ways, which do not harm the environment?”

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