The hidden costs of food
Do you know where your last meal came from?
Where historically we might have had genuine relationships with the people that produce our food, or actually produced it ourselves, today most of us are completely disconnected from the reality of the current exploitative food system.
Remember the horsemeat scandal? What about the slave labour still prevalent in the cocoa industry? Or how farm workers in Almeria, Spain, face unsafe working conditions in order to supply UK supermarkets with chemically produced tomatoes and peppers?
Supply chains can be so long and multilayered that even retailers might not know what’s going on, or at least find it hard to monitor or control. This opaque industrial food supply chain has so many hidden costs.
According to the Sustainable Food Trust: “for every pound UK consumers spend on food, an additional hidden cost of 97p is incurred”, in serious environmental and health-related costs including the price of mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Companies that don’t take responsibility for these costs, are in effect passing them on to the rest of society. Not only that, but they are effectively rewarded for this behaviour. By externalising costs they can make more profit, increasing their own power and dominance in the market.
Farming subsidies exacerbate the issues
Since 2003, the EU single payment scheme (or ‘basic payment’ since 2015) has subsidised farmers based on how much land they own, regardless of how they farm. This favours large farms, and leads to further land concentration. Smaller farms struggle to compete and the true costs of industrial farms are bizarrely subsidised and exacerbated.
The subsidy scheme is being re-evaluated post-Brexit, with promises of ‘public money for public goods’, but we have yet to see whether it will level the playing field for smaller agroecological growers and farmers. See this article by the Food Research Collaboration to find out more.
Re-evaluating our supply chains
Independent certification schemes, such as organic or Fairtrade labels, provide some guarantee of standards in supply chains, and are particularly good to look for amongst mainstream options. The certification bodies require a level of transparency and they set standards that the licensee must meet.
There is concern though, that as companies such as Sainsbury’s and Nestle abandon their forays into the Fairtrade world, a proliferation of in-house labelling schemes causes confusion for customers. Moreover, industry-led standards are inevitably designed largely by and for the companies themselves, rather than the farmers. The standards are no longer certified by an independent third-party.
One of the central principles of the Fairtrade scheme is the premium paid to farmers, which they can then decide how to spend on their community. Under Sainsbury’s in-house tea scheme, this premium is seen as ‘donor’ money, and Sainsbury’s has to approve how it is spent.
If you are lucky, you may have access to a local system that is more transparent because of its scale and the more direct relationships that this enables. Look for suppliers that are clear about their standards, criteria or results, or ask them if they can be.
Smaller mission-oriented businesses with shorter supply chains can choose to trade for mutual benefit; building transparency, trust and cooperation. They can monitor and reduce negative social and environmental impacts, and build positive impacts.
Another food system is not only possible, but is in motion today.
Case Study: Veg Box People, Manchester
Veg Box People is part of the family of enterprises incubated and supported by the Kindling Trust. It was started because of a worry about the impact of the current food industry on the environment, on our high streets, on small-scale farmers and ultimately ourselves as consumers.
They are working hard to create a small but perfectly formed food supply chain.
“We’ve not got it right yet and we won’t have perfected our vision for a few years. Any tweaks or refinement to our way of working will be motivated by supporting more local farmers and providing the best possible service for our customers. Any changes will be communicated in an honest and timely manner”.
“…there are a few things we won’t compromise on: your produce will always be 100% organic, we will never include food that has been flown to the UK and we will always ensure the farmers are paid a price that covers their true price of production”.
“The other thing we don’t compromise on is our not-for-profit ethos so you can rest assured every penny will be spent wisely. We operate an Open Book policy, so our customers can request to see our accounts at any time (as long as they have been a customer for over 6 months).”