cheap foodI’ve been to a couple of interesting talks on food recently. Food Talks at Impact Hub Kings Cross and the Future of our Food at City University. Both talked about sustainable food systems and whether our current business model and food production systems are fit for the future. The answer from leading academics and thinkers on food and farming is that no, it’s not and systematic change is needed.

One thing that prevents the systematic change needed is the price we pay for our food. We have got used to an abundance of cheap food but I believe that there is no such thing as cheap food, someone always pays somewhere along the line. Cheap milk is putting farmers out of business or into more intensive dairy systems and undervaluing an important and vital food source. Because of this the milk we drink in the future might not come from cows that have grazed but from cows housed all year round and fed total mix rations of which grass will be a small part. What impact will that have on the health benefits of that milk, the local communities and countryside as well as the cows?

food2Cheap intensively sourced meat and other produce results in the NHS having to pay that price as obesity revels rise alongside the illnesses that come with it such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, some cancers and strokes.  At Food Talks it was said we overeat by 20% and waste between 20/30% of our food. Overeating in its way is wasting food so in total we could be wasting between 40/50% of our food. That’s a huge amount of food that is being produced and wasted whilst putting resources under strain and driving our farming systems towards more intensive production. It might also explain why National Statistics show a marked increase in the last ten years in the proportion of adults that were obese from 13.2 per cent to 26.0 per cent for men, and from 16.4 per cent to 23.8 per cent for women. Suddenly cheap food doesn’t seem so cheap after all.

This might be a very simplistic answer but if we already pay for cheap food through our health and also in our pockets, if we ate and wasted less we should be able to pay a little bit more for food that is more sustainably farmed, better quality and doesn’t end up in a bin or a spare tyre around our waist.

Food and farming production is reliant on resources such as water. Demand for water over the next 30 years is projected to rise by almost a half, at a time when the groundwater table in many regions of the world is falling. Large areas are suffering from shortages due to drought, large-scale irrigation and pollution. Robert Craig who wrote his Nuffield Paper on cheap food recently tweeted that California has about one year left of water. Even in the Anglian region of the UK water companies are already looking at how to mitigate water shortages as they estimate by 2030 they could have a severe water shortage of around 550 million litres each day.

What’s clear is that cheap food is not sustainable. These pictures from The Guardian shows us what over consumption is doing for us and the planet.

There are some positives and that is that real change is driven by us. We can drive policy change whether that’s in the Government or the large retailers. We can vote with our purse and show them that we want and demand from our food and food production systems. We want systems that won’t leave the planet worse off, put smaller farms out of business or generally make things worse for ourselves and subsequent generations.


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