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The real price of our food

The price of food is big news right now. Food price deflation, along with a rock bottom oil price, is the primary reason why here in the UK inflation fell to the lowest level since records began at the start of 2015.

On the face of it that’s good news for consumers. The less money we need to spend on essentials such as food and fuel the more cash we have to spend on the luxury goods and services that drive economic growth. Politicians, meanwhile, will be hoping that downward pressure on prices will relieve some of the pressure on food banks, whose numbers have swelled during a prolonged period of economic uncertainty.

Yet there’s another dimension to the food price narrative that receives far less media attention. The food we eat may appear cheap, but that’s largely because the environmental and health costs of our current food consumption are not reflected in the price we pay at the till. Our Western diets – high in salt, sugar and saturated fat – place huge strains on public health systems and are a key driver of global environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation and water source depletion. Just this month a report by Fern found that an average of one football pitch of forest was illegally cleared every two minutes during 2000-2012 to supply the EU with commodities such as palm oil and soy for use in everyday grocery products.

One possible solution is to account for these externalities in the price of a product. Environmental true cost accounting is a method of accounting that traces direct costs and allocates indirect costs by collecting and presenting information about the possible environmental, social and economic costs, benefits or advantages for each proposed alternative. It has been identified as a key component to future food systems becoming truly sustainable.

The concept is starting to gain traction in policy circles as governments, businesses and other institutions come to terms with the long-term costs of business as usual. Yet true cost accounting is a delicate and sensitive issue and there are many questions proponents need to be prepared to answer. For example, just how politically and commercially palatable is a message that we should pay more for the food we eat when a billion people globally are undernourished? Would true cost accounting really result in the adoption of more sustainable diets, and would internalising indirect costs make unsustainable food more expensive whilst reducing the cost of sustainable food or would food prices increase across the board?

These questions remain to be fully answered. Nevertheless, a good first step is to foster a better understanding of the direct and indirect costs and impacts of our food consumption on public health systems and the environment, and to identify policies and measures that would enable the emergence of an accounting system for food that reflects the true price of a product.

A version of this blog was first published on the LiveWell for Life website

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