The True Cost of Cheap Food

The true cost of cheap food

In the 19th century, the English philosopher and entrepreneur William Morris found two important key factors in interpreting the modern economy: the pleasure from work and the nature of the consumer demand. A worker feels pleasure when she is not just a piece in a production chain, but when she can clearly see the outcome of what is being produced: the worker is a crafter, feeling the importance of that activity. However, "ethical" products (as these products can be called) are more expensive than the cheap chain-produced goods. Morris underlined that if consumers know this difference very well, they will be willing to pay more, a just price, to reward a good activity rather than a cheap production technique. William Morris is very helpful today in understanding the true cost of cheap food.

When you walk in a supermarket for your shopping, you are always attracted by discounts and cheaper prices (the laws of marketing are pretty clear). But why are some products extremely cheap? How is it possible that a jar of mayo is only 50p? And a pack of eggs is only £1?  If you see these prices, you would probably be thrilled and you'd decide to buy these cheap products. However, the hidden costs behind that £1 transaction are enormous.

A report from the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) shows that for every £1 spent on food, you pay another £1 in hidden ways. First of all, think about the quality of that cheap product you are buying. For every £1 spent on food, you should add 37p for diet-related diseases that will be caused. Another 13p should be added because of food-production related health costs: antibiotic resistance, food poisoning and so on. Also, some farming methods are associated with the degradation of soils, water and biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions. There is an environmental cost as well.

This is why the SFT is trying to use a true cost accounting method. You don't pay just at the checkout. The true cost varies according to how the food is produced and how well or poorly it contributes to a healthy diet.

For example, consider you want to buy chicken for dinner. At the supermarket you will probably face two choices: a cheap one (very affordable and appealing, especially to students) and a more expensive one. At this point, try to ask yourself where these two chickens are coming from. If you choose the cheap one, you are choosing to give your money (and subsidize) to a very unsustainable poultry industry. As Oxfam reports, the poultry workers earn low wages in diminishing values, suffer elevated rates of injury and illness, and often experience a climate of fear in the workplace. The more expensive chicken, on the other hand, will most likely come from an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible farm. However, the market goes where the price is cheaper, so the environmentally sustainable farm will have to bear the cost of that production, while intensive large-scale farmers do not have to pay for the damage they cause in producing that cheap food.

Who is paying for that damage? You. First in taxes to subsidize that industry (€58 billion subsidies spent by the EU), then for environmental clean-up, and finally for health care costs associated with a poor diet.

Your food choices impact the world, the lives of many workers and the environment. It doesn't mean you have to buy the most expensive product, but that you have to carefully check where your food is being produced and by whom. The more the society is aware, the better choices will be made.