Cheap Food Costs Dear: review of the Compassion in World Farming report by Martin Peck

You have not lived if you have not read CiWF’s recent report “Cheap Food Costs Dear”.

Forgive me – exhilarating reading – what I really meant to say was that if the content of this report is not taken seriously then future generations will not have lived, because there will not have been any food for them, or indeed a habitable planet in which to dine. A bit extreme? no I don’t think so. The FAO stresses: “the current rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity to meet the needs of future generations, unless we reverse this trend through a concerted effort towards the sustainable management of soils.”

The CiWF report draws attention to interrelated aspects of the many externalities of agriculture and the food system. For instance the particular costs arising from poor animal welfare, food contamination, air and water pollution, antimicrobial resistance, excess nitrogen in the environment and soil degradation amount in Europe to €168 billion. “Despite this, the figure of €168 billion costs per year incurred due to EU agriculture’s negative externalities, is almost certainly a substantial underestimate as, due to current uncertainty of the data, we have not included costs for the impact of agriculture and food on, Biodiversity loss, Climate Change, Obesity, diabetics and certain cancers.” “Moreover, it only considers the costs of poor animal welfare in the pig sector.”

I could be accused of bias in relishing this broad collection of summary data as I was unable to escape developing a similar concern for land some 40 years ago. Admiittedly it was more framed in simple common sense terms: only by looking after the land would it be able to look after us. Now however there is so much more indisputable evidence on so many fronts that continuing to ignore these observations is inhuman.

The report states that [even] the UK Government Foresight report has said that “the food system today is not sustainable because of its negative externalities. These are not included in the cost of food and hence there are relatively few market incentives to reduce them” Humanity appears to behave with discretional reason. HL Menken believed, “it is the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting.” Comfort here derives from the illusion that money is the ultimate security.

What is frustrating is that if you scratch beneath the surface of this daunting data, the potential for a genuinely fruitful future becomes very clear: it would not be unpleasant at all. There is considerable misperception of what is really happening in our food system and this report draws attention to many of these hidden costs. “..the cost agriculture imposes on water companies for cleaning nitrates, pesticides and other treatments from water was £271 million in 2002/2003” means that even within the current economic paradigm there are serious gains for society to be made by farming properly, that is with a better respect for the environment. Much of the basis of this report has been known by some for many many years. Indeed the Soil Association was formed more than 60 years ago out of recognition of the links between healthy soil and the health of people and chose paths to avoid many of the negative externalities that are the substance of this report. In drawing attention to true cost accounting for instance, the theme of the Soil Association conference 15 years ago was Counting the Cost of Industrial Agriculture. Similarly, more recently there was a Sustainable Food Trust conference.

The real difficulty is the continued evasion of external costs that artificially favour industrial agriculture, hiding inherent inefficiencies and deluding the public, when in fact it is a type of agriculture that is not sustainable. The collaborative reluctance of the establishment to stop defending the current conventional economic practice with its misleading parameters for defining human progress and well being is not clever. “The consequences of soil biodiversity mismanagement have been estimated to be in excess of one trillion dollars per year worldwide.” and more specifically “The European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA) estimates that environmental damage related to reactive Nitrogen (Nr) effects from agriculture in the EU-27 is €20-€150 billion per year. A cost-benefit analysis shows this outweighs the benefit of N-fertiliser for farmers of €10-€100 billion per year.” But also “ The ENA identifies five key threats associated with excess Nr in the environment: damage to water quality, air quality (and hence human health, in particular respiratory problems and cancers), soil quality(acidification of agricultural soils and loss of soil biodiversity), the greenhouse gas balance and ecosystems and biodiversity.”

There is much more on the health implications and consequent costs. The CiWF report includes for instance reference to a report by the World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health “Non-communicable Diseases already pose a substantial economic burden and this burden will evolve into a staggering one over the next two decades.” We are talking of many billions of Euros. There is also more depth on biodiversity loss attributed to agriculture. The ultimate puzzle is perhaps to fathom the reason behind an industry that destoys its fundamental resource?

The report makes several direct references to the impact of agriculture on greenhouse gases and climate change: “.. studies suggest that ‘business-as-usual’ will lead to agriculture’s GHG emissions being so high by 2050 that they alone will push global temperatures to increase by almost 2degreesC.” Also as would be expected for instance in reference to imported soy, being grown “on land converted to cropland by deforestation and clearing of savannahs. This entails massive biodiversity loss and releases huge amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to climate change.” This is referring to 30 million tonnes of soymeal each year corresponding to 20 million hectares of cropland.

It becomes difficult to separate soil degradation and erosion from losing carbon to the atmosphere and also other greenhouse gas emission sources. According to the FAO “75 billion tonnes of soil are lost every year, costing approximately US$400billion. Brazil, for example, loses 55million tonnes of topsoil every year due to erosion from soy production.” This is a lot of carbon. EU soil degradation costs the EU economy some €38 billion each year. There are many more sobering figures to reflect on and to explore in the references. “Depletion of soil organic carbon in conventional agricultural fields is now thought to be an important factor constraining productivity as many arable soils have suboptimal concentrations.” It is not difficult to envisage a more enlightened agroecological or organic approach that serves to address both climate change and food security.

The report goes on with “mending our food system” to offer solutions including taxation and other fiscal measures to internalise the externalities. To complement this, I offer my own light hearted suggestion. Reflecting on the UK’s recent Quantitative Easing and outstanding debt of the banks to the taxpayer, I suggest that a similar amount – equivalent to £51,000 for every ‘family’ of 4 people – be turned into food tokens to support the purchase of food produced by agroecological methods – approximately £25 per week for ten years for every person. This alone would be a genuinely positive and greater stimulus to the economy and to health and to the restoration of a viable planetary ecosystem.

CiWF appropriately brings another report to our attention. “The report by Chatham House and FCRN stresses that while they have important roles to play, the restructuring of our food system cannot be left to ‘industry goodwill or enlightened self interest’. The report highlights the need for governments’ non-interventionalist approach to be replaced by a willingness to set a strong policy ,regulatory and fiscal framework. …”

The concluding paragraph of CiWF’s report opens with “The costs of making good the adverse impacts arising from industrial livestock production will in years to come be massive. In some cases they may not even be capable of being made good, for example the loss of soil through erosion….”

Anything I write could not do justice to this CiWF report ‘Cheap Food Costs Dear’. I can only urge everyone to read it and to try to ensure that policy makers are made aware of it.

Martin Peck
8th March 2016

Cheap Food Costs Dear

Cheap food costs dear
by Megan Perry on 19 February, 2016 in Resource of the Week

Featured image: Soil. Author: Gokhan Okur. Source:

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