Who pays the true cost of food? And when?

Earlier this month, for the first time, I tweeted my way through a conference. It was on true cost accounting for food and farming – #tcaconf. The talks are all on the organisers, Sustainable Food Trust’s, website.

While everyone there recognised that the price we pay for food does not reflect the true cost of producing it today, the tough issue was how are you going to account for these costs in a way that does not hurt poor people most.

Neither farmers nor businesses in the food system have to pay for the real cost of the way they do business, owing to what economists call externalities – things that are not accounted for in the price people pay for goods and services. But to include them will put the price up. The questions is who pays, and when – now or later?

What was missing, for me, was a sense of where the burden should fall when you do take account of these true costs. And they are huge. The huge cost of these externalities runs into trillions of pounds, according to Tim Lang, over the coming decades in health care costs that poor diets lead to. There are other big externalities from the environmental costs of many current, fossil-fuelled industrial farming practices, from pollution to biodiversity loss, which undermine sustainability of the system.

But tackling these does not have to mean loading everything onto the price of the final product. Thinking that it does misses the complexities in the system – the range of subsidies and polices that underpin the way things are today, from those to the fossil fuel industry to direct payment to farmers to legal frameworks such as those on intellectual property. Taking the true costs seriously and building them into the system also offers social and economic opportunities to rethink these things, so that in taking account of the real costs, they too are changed.

Where prices of basic foods or inputs go up, the issue becomes one of poverty, fair wages, wealth distribution and expectations, not simply squeezing the poorest further in the status quo. Perhaps that’s why this tougher stuff did not get tackled – the place for another conference? It’s also why the final, ill-judged, session was a missed opportunity – as an 11 year old said in one of the final comments on the conference, something like ‘all morning the problems we’ve been discussing have been about my future… why are we now not talking about action?’.

What was clear from some participants is that we do know many of the things to do – as these interviews with a couple of the speakers briefly outline. One is stopping the corporate externalities, which, says Pavan Sukhdev, study leader of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, TEEB, project in this interview are “the biggest free lunch in the history of time”.

We also know what needs to be done in changing farming systems, says Prof Jules Pretty, in this short interview. The evidence is there to show that moving to agro-ecological approaches, and supporting the majority of the world’s small farmers in this approach, can both deliver sustainable production, increase production and avoid the negative impacts on our environment.

About geofftansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I am also a member of the Food Ethics Council and chaired the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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