The true cost of cheap, low quality food
Providing cheap, low-quality food is not the solution to helping the most disadvantaged in our society cut their food bills. The true cost of cheap food is a negative legacy that affects us all.
The good news is that it is easy to reduce your food bill by changing the way you shop and cook. Cheap food is readily available to everyone – but it should be good quality, nutritious food, not sub-standard and low-quality. Far more support is needed to help people, especially the disadvantaged, move to a freshly cooked, wholesome diet that could drastically cut the pounds – yes, both money and weight!!
But it is not only the public who need educating. clearly, our politicians and peers do too!
The bad news is that the UK could potentially be flooded with cheap low-quality imports from America if we do not take action. And we need to take action quickly!
While the media is, not unsurprisingly, focused on the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter campaign, little attention is being paid to legislation relating to Brexit and future trade deals the Government is currently negotiating.
One important piece of legislation is the Agriculture Bill, described by many in the industry as the most important piece of farming legislation to come before parliament in decades. The bill includes an amendment tabled by Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, which sought to protect UK farmers from low-standard food imports.
Although the amendment was muted to protect farmers, poor-quality imports such as chlorinated chicken also have a detrimental impact on the general public, on animal welfare, and on the environment.
This clause would have prevented future trade deals from allowing food into the UK not produced to the standards required of farmers and processors within the UK.
Unfortunately, the clause was defeated by 328 to 277 votes after failing to receive the support of the Conservative government, despite several previous commitments to safeguard our farming industry from cheap food imports, produced to standards that would be illegal in the UK.
But the fight isn’t over yet.
The Agriculture Bill has not yet been finally approved by the House of Lords. The committee stage is scheduled for 7th July. There is still time to ensure the UK Government puts into law rules that prevent food being imported to the UK which is produced in ways that would be illegal here.
We must ensure that both Houses of Parliament understand the public view. Perhaps most importantly, MPs and peers need to be educated on the true cost of cheap food!
One member of the House of Lords has said:
“Don’t be deceived by the 38 of 42 lords who supported the Parish amendment. There are another 700 who have remained silent. Most will vote on party lines (Tories are against the amendment and labour pro), and few will go to the wall for it. This is a classic debate between those who support the landowners, and those in favour of the poor consumer … Whose side are you on? I know where I stand.”
Just to clarify, this member is effectively saying he will vote against the amendment because he is siding with the consumer: that is, he believes people will benefit from cheap imports even if they are inferior to current food standards. Whilst the sentiment of protecting the consumer may be honourable, he is, quite frankly, delusional!
Below experts in their field examine the true cost of cheap, low-quality food
The negative health impacts of cheap food
Every chemical process in the body is dependent on our consumption of food, water, and air.
Since this is true, paying attention to what we eat is essential for good health. There is very little disagreement about what a healthy diet really is. A wholefood plant-based diet is the daily fare of the healthiest and longest-living people on the planet.
There is also no disagreement about what the modern diet laced with cheap food is doing – it is killing us. Eating a poor-quality diet high in cheap food is linked to a higher risk of obesity, depression, digestive issues, heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and early death. And as you might expect, this tsunami of disease puts incredible pressure on an already struggling NHS.
The diet that we eat today is a result of corporations and governments placing profit over health. The primary focus of the food industry is to generate the maximum profit by producing foods that appeal to dramatic taste, price, and convenience above any other considerations. This food has been made cheap largely by the application of government subsidies. The true cost in terms of public health and environmental impact are not factored into the mix.
Whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds are readily available and affordable by all. It is not expensive to eat a healthy plant-based diet. All my students and clients will testify to that. They tell me that they have saved up to 40% on their monthly food bills by removing meat, dairy and processed foods from their diet. I have also created recipes for living below the line where I lived on £5 for five days eating rice, beans, and vegetables.
How cheap food affects our farmers and farming practices
by Tracy Worcester, Founder and Director of Farms Not Factories.
Food and farming has moved from mixed produce on real farms into the hands of giant corporations who produce monoculture crops with massive machines and toxic chemicals and livestock in factory farms.
To out-compete small scale farming, these corporations seek lax taxes, generous subsidies, and low standards in terms of worker’s rights, animal welfare and environmental protection.
To facilitate this corporate takeover across the globe, politicians are signing so-called free trade agreements that have seen cheap, low standard imports flood markets and force small scale family farmers to get big or get out of the industry across the world.
Today, in the UK, we are at a seminal crossroads between those politicians that want to improve our food and farming standards and those that want to allow unfettered global trade that will push our farmers down a spiral of ever lower standards in food and farming.
The true cost of the centralised food system across the world is paid by massive direct government subsidies and R&D and also indirectly as the government has to clean up the pollution and illnesses suffered by sick people.
In the UK, £3 billion per year is given as subsidies to keep the farmers in business in a global market, whereas £2.6 billion is spent repairing the damage to the environment and people’s health. The fragility of the global food system has been highlighted during Covid-19 as our centralised system has not been able to redirect food from hospitality to retail, so for example potatoes, lettuce etc are being ploughed back into the soil and milk poured down the drain.
The present pandemic and lockdown prove that a food system that feeds 70 million people on our UK island needs to be resilient to shocks. We need to take food out of the global trading system and ensure that local food is prioritised across the globe. Meanwhile, we should shorten the distance between producer and consumer by increasing our network of smaller-scale producers, slaughterhouses, processors, and markets that have served us so well during lockdown.
Thankfully, people are increasingly becoming conscientious consumers in protest against the cruelty and potential diseases of factory farming, some choosing to go vegan or vegetarian and others looking for meat with high animal welfare labels.
But the best reaction is to avoid the supermarket middlemen and buy direct from traditional mixed farms where livestock, local feed and veg are produced without chemicals and sold via farmers markets, box schemes and Community Supported Agriculture – all of which can be sourced directly or via the internet and are accessible to both urban and rural consumers.
How cheap food affects our environment
By Helen Browning, Chief Executive of the Soil Association
The demand for ‘cheap food’ often leads to a high environmental or social price that pops up elsewhere, such as in low wages and poor working conditions for people on farms and in food factories, or in our water bills to pay for the cost of removing pesticides and nitrate. Perhaps even worse are the costs that will be left for future generations to pay for, such as soil and nature depletion. When the true cost of doing something well is not factored into the costs of production, we are just pushing the negative consequences elsewhere.
I know as a farmer myself that doing things properly does cost more. I need to employ more and skilled people to care for our animals properly; I must give them plenty of bedding and nutritious food so that they are naturally healthy, and we don’t need to use antibiotics very often; I want to provide natural habitats for wildlife, and provide safe places for the community to enjoy the countryside.
All this costs us more, and so we have been organic farmers for over 30 years as this has usually allowed us to recoup some of these costs through the support of a growing number of citizens who want to support better farming and food.
In an ideal world, all food would meet these standards at least. If there is a social need to keep food prices low, then the environmental, social, and animal welfare costs of farming well should be met from the public purse. The burden then falls on the taxpayer, which may be more socially just. The investment of feeding people well and caring for future generations will pay back very quickly.
If we allow cheap, low-quality food imports from the US or other places, it will jeopardise the improvements that UK farmers have made in recent years and is likely to lead to a ‘race to the bottom’. At a time when the benefits of a healthy diet is becoming ever more recognised, and it is accepted that we must reverse the environmental impacts of chemical-based farming, this would be a hugely retrograde step.
How cheap food affects animal welfare
The impact of cheap food on animal welfare is all too evident.
To produce cheap, low-quality meat products including chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-pumped beef, these poor creatures are kept in horrific, overcrowded conditions and pumped full of antibiotics to deal with the illnesses that these inhumane conditions foster.
As an example, Tracy Worcester makes a comparison between pig farming in the UK and the US.
According to most consumers, pork in the UK, mostly under the name of Red Tractor, is produced to low standards. The main criticism is that UK law still allows mother pigs to be confined in a tiny crate for up to five weeks while she is giving birth and feeding her piglets. The only way consumers can avoid contributing to this cruelty is by only buying pork with a high welfare label.
However, UK standards are better than in the EU primarily because in the EU mother pigs are additionally confined in gestation crates for four weeks in each 3-month, 3-week, 3-day pregnancy. In these inhumane cages she cannot move beyond standing or lying down.
On the whole, less antibiotics are used in pig production the UK compared to the EU.
However, in the US the standards are far lower in every way.
The sow is in a crate for her pregnancy and while feeding her babies.
Though the beta agonist growth promoting drug, Ractopamine, is banned in 160 countries, including the EU due to its danger to human health, in the US it is given to 60-80% of fattening pigs to increase their growth by 18%. The pigs suffer lameness or are unable to stand, start trembling and suffer a host of other ailments.
Antibiotic use in pigs in the US is 5 times more than of the UK.
Due to Ag Gag laws, it is a criminal office to enter a factory farm in the US or even film one from the public path/roadside so there is no way to expose the conditions to alert the public.
The vertical integrated pig industry in the US gives the few massive slaughterhouse/packing plants that have contracts with a multitude of large-scale pig producers, the power to dictate the price of the pigs. They make all the money from the sales so the lower the price for pigs the better for them. As pig farmers go bankrupt so the slaughterhouses buy their pig factories for a fraction of their cost.
THE TRUE COST OF CHEAP, LOW-QUALITY FOOD IS A HIGH PRICE TO PAY.
CLICK HERE TO ASK THE UK GOVERNMENT TO PUT INTO LAW RULES THAT PREVENT FOOD BEING IMPORTED TO THE UK WHICH IS PRODUCED IN WAYS THAT WOULD BE ILLEGAL HERE.