“Industrially produced meat and milk are cheap at the supermarket checkout” due to "an economic sleight of hand", as Compassion’s Chief Policy Advisor explained in a compelling presentation at our recent conference. "We’ve devised a distorting economics that takes account of some costs, such as housing and feeding animals, and ignores others, including the detrimental impact of industrial agriculture on health, wildlife and natural resources”.
On Tuesday, the Sustainable Food Trust published a new report that provides monetary estimates of the true costs of food based on the best available data. The Hidden Cost of UK Food reveals that whilst British consumers spend £120 billion on food annually, another £120 billion of costs are incurred. These additional costs are passed on to society, taxpayers and future generations.
The annual hidden checkout bill includes £30.93 billion for natural capital degradation (including for GHG emissions, air pollution, soil degradation); £12.75 billion for biodiversity loss; £44.91 billion for food consumption related health costs (including for heart disease, diabetes, cancers) and £16.08 billion for food production related health costs (including antibiotic resistance and organophosphate pesticides).
Damage to human health comprises the largest proportion of the hidden costs at just over £60 billion. Putting this into context, I checked on the budget for the NHS, which was around £116 billion for 2015/16. The benefits to society of addressing our broken food system are clear. There is no doubt that a humane and sustainable food system would benefit animals, people and the planet.
At the launch of the report yesterday, Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust, said: “For every £1 we hand over at the till another £1 is quietly taken from us without our consent. The current UK food system thrives only because it does not account for the full costs of production or consumption, which are paid for in hidden ways. Those who pollute or degrade do not pay for the damage they cause. Conversely, those who farm more sustainably are forced to cover the higher cost of producing food in more beneficial ways. This means there is no business case for producers to adopt more sustainable approaches. The government can and must factor in these hidden costs and benefits in developing post-Brexit food and farming policies.”
Compassion in World Farming agrees on the urgent need for honesty in our food system and for action post-Brexit. We need not only honest pricing but also honest labelling according to method of production. We need to move, as Peter called for in his conference presentation, to a true mirror economics that accurately reflects all relevant costs. If that were done then factory farmed meat and milk would no longer be the cheaper option.