The huge cost of producing cheap food

The focus on producing surplus and cheap food threatens the survival of the country’s smaller farms, Prince Charles said, adding that if these farms disappear, ‘it will rip the heart out of the British countryside.’ The warning has been sounded at a time when a global business data platform estimates the number of employed and self-employed farmers in the UK to have come down to just 1.07 lakh.

The huge cost of producing cheap food

Unfair deal: Farming remains in distress because to provide cheap food, the right price is denied to growers. PTI

Devinder Sharma

Food & Agriculture Specialist

IN a recent BBC Radio broadcast, Prince Charles said: “How we produce food has a direct impact on the earth’s capacity to sustain us, which has a direct impact on human health and economic prosperity.” The clamour for producing cheap food, which is at the very foundation of the mad race towards an unfettered economic growth, is actually based on externalising the ‘hidden costs’ of modern industrial farming.

The focus on producing surplus and cheap food threatens the very survival of the country’s smaller farms, Prince Charles said, adding that if these small farms disappear, “it will rip the heart out of the British countryside.” The warning has been sounded at a time when Statista, a global business data platform, estimates the total number of employed and self-employed farmers in the UK to have come down drastically to a mere 1,07,000 in 2020.

In many ways, his warning finds reverberations in the iconic farmers’ movement being witnessed in India, wherein the protesters appear to be worried about the possibility of their livelihoods being usurped by big agri-business companies once the Central farm laws are implemented. In addition, although 86 per cent of India’s farmlands are below 2 hectares, categorised as small and marginal, the advent of the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s emphasising on the need to intensify production per unit of land, has come at a huge cost. Instead of making a long overdue correction, more of the same is now being pushed by facilitating the entry of big agri-business companies.

This reminds me of a plenary talk I delivered at the 2017 Organic World Congress titled ‘World Must Detoxify its Toxic Farmlands’, presenting a six-point charter for a more specific action-oriented programme at the local, national and international levels to reverse the ecological devastation that industrial farming has inflicted on the planet. Intensifying food production has not only inflicted a severe blow to environment by destroying natural resources, including soil and water, and acerbating climate change in the process, but the resulting unsustainable food systems that have been encouraged over the past few decades in the guise of building efficiency and competitiveness have also taken a heavy toll on human life.

While the ‘hidden cost’ of producing cheap food has been talked about time and again, with some of the well-known experts and even some of the international committees, including the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) in 2009, and more recently, the 2021 report of The Economics of Biodiversity presented by economist Partha Dasgupta, warning that business as usual is not the road ahead, global leadership has simply ignored these concerns. It will, therefore, be interesting to see how the UN at its proposed Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September 2021 plans to come up with an effective and implementable roadmap for radically overhauling the way food is produced, processed, transported and consumed.

But, as Albert Einstein had once said, we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. This is exactly what more than 300 civil society organisations, small-scale producers, indigenous communities and individual scientists/experts are pointing to, and this is what the UNFSS has to be careful about. Launching a campaign for boycotting the so-called People’s Summit, they accuse the UNFSS of “facilitating greater corporate concentration, fostering unsustainable globalised value chains, and promoting the influence of agri-business on public institutions.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise since the World Economic Forum too had in 2009 come up with a New Vision for Agriculture to be executed by 17 multinational agri-business companies. Finding corporate-led market-based solutions to a crisis that is actually the outcome of creating over the years an enabling environment for free markets is not what the world requires at this crucial juncture. Rethinking agriculture is the need of the times given that half the world’s land is used for agriculture, and as a consequence of pushing intensive farming systems, it also happens to be the second biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Nevertheless, another timely report by Rockefeller Foundation — ‘True cost of food: Measuring what matters to transform the US food system’ — that not only quantifies the cost of producing cheap food, but goes much beyond providing a value tag to the ‘hidden costs’ should hopefully shake up our blinkered economic thinking. Cheap food has always been considered essential to keep economic reforms viable. So far, it has worked because economists and policymakers refused to measure its true cost. But the massive environmental disruptions, resulting human health costs and huge livelihood distortions resulting from producing cheap food, are so large that it is no longer possible anymore to keep the shocking figures under the carpet.

American consumers spent roughly

$1.1 trillion in 2019 on food. The report says the food price tag, however, does not include the cost of healthcare from diet-related illnesses, the damage it does to environment, including soil, water and biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions resulting in climate change, agrarian distress and much more. Adding up all these costs, “the true cost of the US food system is at least three times as big — $3.2 trillion per year.” While this certainly is a conservative estimate, what the report helps bring out is to provide numbers to what was already known – the current food system that the world follows is badly broken.

Globally too, the true cost of producing food is three times higher than what consumers pay. In India, where agriculture output is worth Rs 20.19 lakh crore, and where farming as a profession is at the bottom of the economic ladder, studies are needed to quantify the true cost of producing food. Farming remains in distress because to provide cheap food, the right price is denied to growers. Reversing this would require bold decisions based on a completely fresh thinking and approach. The same economic and scientific thinking that led to the crisis cannot be expected to provide any real-time solutions.

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