The last Food Talks event tackled the enormous question: What is a sustainable food system? It’s the same ambitious problem that NEF wrestled with in our report, Urgent Recall: Our food system under review.

Complex questions have complex answers, but in simple terms we argued that any successful food system must be based on three fundamental principles: wellbeing, social justice and environmental sustainability. On the last of these three alone, we estimated that the annual cost of the UK’s food system to the environment is at least £7.2 billion.

The price we pay for food when we scan it through the self-checkout doesn’t reflect this additional damage. These ‘external’ costs are high for some food products (e.g. intensively reared beef) and low for others (e.g. certain organic vegetables).

Overall, however, the argument that such costs ought to be accounted for in production and consumption choices can lead to an uncomfortable conclusion: are we effectively saying that food is too cheap? But can we ever argue for more expensive food?

In the context of the ongoing explosion of food banks across the UK, cranking up the price of most food products through environmental taxes might legitimately be criticised as a highly regressive policy, but that’s because we’re not asking all of the right questions. Rather than ‘Is a sustainable food system unaffordable for the poor?’ perhaps we should instead be asking ‘Are people too poor for us to have a sustainable food system?’

Poverty is both a cause and consequence of environmental degradation. It is no coincidence that we simultaneously observe both extreme unsustainability and extreme inequality in our food system – they are both a product of the dominant neoliberal economic framework that we, and much of the world, have adopted since at least the 1980s. The food system can only be understood as an integral component of this wider neoliberal socio-economic system.

Since the repeal of the Corn Laws, it has been clear that businesses understand the interplay between food and the economy. They know that much of what they pay their workers goes towards meals. For this reason, low pay and rampant poverty create the imperative to drive the price of food downwards. And thus, making food cheap has been a clear objective of the post-war food system – with social justice claimed in defence of this policy.

But keeping the price of food low requires food producers to continually reduce the cost of their inputs, in particular energy and labour. This requires replacing labour inputs (people and animals) with fossil fuels (farm machinery and fertilisers), which are energy-dense and cheap, providing the essential productivity boosts needed.

The linear flow of energy – from oil and gas deposits to our fields – is a large part of the environmental costs that don’t show up on the price tag of the food on supermarket shelves or fast food menus. Expensive workers must either be exploited and underpaid or replaced with cheaper fossil-fuel-powered machines.

These forces are clearly at work in the UK: 11% of our workforce is employed in the food system, but hardly any of them work on the land – they’ve been replaced by machines. The remaining workers are almost all employed in retail or service sectors, predominantly insecure, low-paid jobs.

There is a clear vicious cycle: poor workers require cheap food, which requires poor workers, which requires cheap food, and so on. Poverty and inequality are the enemies of the environment, as well as the result of its mistreatment.

This is a dismal picture. Should we take some cheer from that fact that Britons on average spend less of their income buying food than any other European country except wealthy Luxembourg? Perhaps, but hunger is still present here; this average figure disguises huge disparities between the rich and the poor. The lesson is that you can never eradicate hunger through a cheap food policy alone – we must tackle the root causes of poverty.

These problems are economic as well as environmental; so why not look to economic solutions as well? That’s why the second Food Talks event – a debate about pricing in the food system – is so timely. It gets straight to the heart of both of the interlocked issues that must be addressed for a truly successful food system: sustainability and poverty.

The second in our series of Food Talks series – from Impact Hub Kings Cross, the Food Ethics Council, Organico and Think.Eat.Drink – takes place at the Impact Hub Kings Cross on Thursday 25th June at 6.30pm. To book your place, go here.

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