FFCCSalonTrueCost - RSA

The true cost of food: what should we do about it?

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  • Environment

The first in a series of themed debates prompted by the RSA’s new Food, Farming and Countryside Commission grappled with three questions.

For every £1 we spend on the food on our plate, we spend another £1 on managing what economists call the ‘externalities’, according to a recent report on ‘The Hidden Cost of Food’, published by the Sustainable Food Trust. Those are all the things not priced into the product, which impose effects on people who haven’t chosen them.

They include environmental pollution, soil degradation, biodiversity loss and poor health.

The Trust’s founder, Patrick Holden, joined us for a public discussion on the issue at the RSA last week. After his introduction, the audience - made up of RSA members, engaged public and industry guests - split into tables to debate three questions. Here’s a quick-fire summary of their answers. 

Question One: What are your concerns about how food is produced in the UK today?

  • It is misleading to focus only on how food is produced in the UK. Already a large amount of food eaten here is imported and that may increase after we leave the EU.

  • There is a low level of education about how food is produced in the UK. Food production is so far removed from our lives now that it is hard for many people to connect with what is going on.

  • Supermarkets are supporting monocultures in food production and a wasteful concern with food looking perfect.

  • Think about what happens to food both before and after the farm gate and how that affects public health.

  • How food is consumed is important, as well as how it is produced.

  • Food production today is heavily reliant on cheap energy, will that last?

  • Pay attention to animal welfare and the environmental impact of food production.

Question Two: How important do you feel the price of food is to the public?

  • Your view on the price of food will depend on your position in society and cultural background. It also implies a choice around cost. Some people have a real choice but others do not.

  • Some people’s food choices are restricted because as they live in a food desert with poor shopping options, struggle with time constraints in their daily lives or don’t have transport.

  • Low income is not the only factor driving people to look for savings sole motivator for what people spend on food. Those on higher incomes  also shop at Aldi and Lidl. Someone could spend £3 on a coffee in the morning and then be reticent to spend more than £4 on a chicken in the evening.

  • Food books and programmes are hugely popular in the UK, yet food is still not part of our culture in the same way it is in France or Italy.

  • People don’t always buy in the most sensible way due to a lack of food education and cooking skills.

  • We’ve lost our relationship with food as a society, which has an impact on how we perceive its price.

  • Farming has a role in providing good quality, cheap food, but it also has another role in sustaining the living environment.

Question Three: How can we be fair to everyone – producers, retailers, consumers, the environment, and future generations? Can we reconcile so many competing needs?

  • It is better to start from a position that accepts you can't be fair to everyone and that we need to instead explore trade-offs and who the winners and losers would be. We should identify ways that benefit the most people, including those most in need of support.

  • Accountability needs to be distributed fairly across all groups as some currently get incentives and subsidies and some do not.

  • The vast majority of food production takes place in rural communities, yet rural communities are often excluded from decision making. As are uture generations, who face the consequences of what we do today.

  • Encourage more collaboration between farmers and better transparency on costs throughout the supply chain.

  • We must ensure we do not just focus on the UK but also on people working in the food supply chain around the world

  • There is a need for greater education and knowledge about food, farming and the countryside, starting at school.

  • The focus should be on how we can make change happen. Let’s think about how action on plastic has become a policy imperative. Consumers should be encouraged and incentivised to change, not just made to feel guilty.

  • We need to have a clearer strategy and vision on fairness from the Government, and a clearer understanding of what fairness is and whether or not it is just about money.

For more information about the work of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission please visit www.thersa.org/FFCC and get in contact via [email protected].


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  • Unfortunately, not many people are aware of how unsustainable the UK food system truly is. In my opinion, the report The Hidden Cost of UK Food by the Sustainable Food Trust, which shines a light on the damaging impacts of food production on the natural environment and human health, did not receive the media coverage it deserved. To increase awareness about the findings of the report and to make it more accessible to K consumers I have created an infographic on the topic. The infographic can be found at https://www.greenmatch.co.uk/blog/2018/02/the-hidden-cost-of-food-in-the-uk and I would really appreciate any comments or constructive feedback on it.

  • There are huge problems with food manufacturing that aren’t being addressed.

  • This could have been written in the United States. The exact same problems.

    Don Brown

    • Education on obesity, issues overflavour and the lack of, psychological approaches to eating and understanding what a tyranny of plenty looks like

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