CHEAP FOOD - THE REAL PRICE
" It is to the great credit of modern farming that a cheap food supply has been maintained under the constant attack of Nature, black in tooth and rot."
- Prof Philip Stott, in a letter to the Observer
"The real price of cheap food is a sickly, obese population and a chemically
maintained countryside where disease flourishes, while habitat and species
diversity is destroyed."
-Jeanette Winterson, Guardian columnist
* * *
1. The real price of cheap food - Jeanette Winterson,
2. Foot and Mouth: an economic disease - Jim O'Connor to ngin
3. Organic farming -- the answer to Europe's crisis? - REUTERS
1. The Guardian (London) 6 March 2001 (Features) -: Jeanette Winterson
I have bought organic food since the days when you had to call a New Age hippy from a phone box and haggle over a cabbage. Before that, I was vegetarian because I hate factory farming, its treatment of animals and its effect on the land. I am used to hearing the usual blather about how expensive organic food is and how it can never be more than a niche market for cranks.
The fact is, Ispend less on food than my sensible' friends, because
I buy only raw materials and I cook. Now, I'm not claiming to be Marguerite
Patten and this is not an essay on how to whip
up a nutritious meal for six using only a tin of Spam and an elastic band. What I am claiming is that most people's shop ping habits cost them more than food farmed sustainably would, if our shopping habits could be changed.
Try this experiment - junk all the ready meals and snack foods, decide to eat meat only two or three times a week, and buy the best of everything. You will save a fortune. One of the most fascinating things about Channel 4's 1940s House was what happened to Mrs Hymer after the series ended. She did not go back to supermarket shopping and she no longer bought convenience foods. The result was a saving of pounds 70 a week for a family of five.
The fact is that women are mostly still in charge of shopping and cooking.
This gives us huge power. We can change food production in Britain faster
than governments or legislation. What we
demand will determine what supermarkets buy. Something has to happen - and soon. On the back of BSE comes foot and mouth. Not long ago it was E coli and salmonella.
Farming is not a business in which costs can be cut indefinitely. The real price of cheap food is a sickly, obese population and a chemically maintained countryside where disease flourishes, while habitat and species diversity is destroyed. The bucket-loads of antibiotics fed to animals have not proved protection against the unnatural way they are farmed. Nick Brown says he wants to look again at the effects of intensive farming. The big issue is going to be cheap food. Ask yourself this: why will you pay 50p for a chocolate bar and expect six eggs for the same price? Food has become something we seem to feel should not cost money.
To keep prices low and margins high, supermarkets import half of what we eat. I live in the Cotswolds, next door Hereford produces wonderful beef. My local Tesco only sells organic beef from Argentina. How does that help British farmers? How does that support a rural economy? It is true that beef ranched abroad can be produced more cheaply than anything we can manage in Britain - or so it seems.
Earth scientist James Lovelock has worked out the true cost of a rainforest
hamburger. He arrived at this figure by ruling out all the economically
invisible benefits rainforests provide - habitat, livelihood for indigenous
people, etc - and focused on the fact that rainforests act as giant cooling
systems for the whole planet. He then calculated the cost of providing
this service technologically. He divided that cost per hectare of forest,
averaged the number of cattle ranched on each cleared hectare, then worked
out how many hamburgers could be got from each animal. So next time you
pay 99p, remember the Dollars 65 the planet has paid for you. The implications
of the way we
eat will be problems our children will have to solve.
Seventy-five per cent of the earth's fertile land is farmed. I do not
believe more chemicals, drugs and GM crops are the answer. The answer starts
with a quiet revolution - what we are going to eat and how we are going
to pay for it. We will have to pay, if not out of our pockets, then
out of our bodies. We will pay with our health and with the health of the planet. Purse power is not just a middle-class solution, but as the middle classes are better paid and better informed, they are in a strong position to drive the changes in shopping habits that are the only thing that will force supermarkets to alter their destructive buying policies. When Tony Blair accused supermarkets of holding farmers in an armlock', he was right. The supermarkets in turn blame the consumer -
forgetting the 1960s advertising adage: The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.'
Now she has her own bank account. Go shop. This column will appear fortnightly.
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2. Foot and Mouth: an economic disease
(e-mail to ngin)
Thanks for the Independent article on FMD - a good one. In a similar vein I sent this letter to our Irish Times last Thurs. Despite a good batting average with letters to the press they didn't publish it or anything like it from others. Have you heard the latest terms from our utterly paranoiad MinAg re FMD, Fortress Ireland, Ring of Steel ( journalist exposed it later as Sieve of Steel) and Treasonous Press?
As the prospect of mountains of burning animal bodies looms here I have some questions. If the FMD virus is not a killer of either animals or humans and is endemic in many parts of the world anyway, why are these draconian measures necessary? We all accept that in the case of serious
threats to human health from BSE, TB and Brucellosis etc drastic measures are necessary (and not always very effective!). But there is no health risk with FMD; there is only an economic one. There must be figures to support this economic argument. Where are they? Could the government and its agencies supply us with these? And could the figures include a broad, cost/benefit analysis, including a valuation of the stress and loss caused to the farming community?
I'm quite sure if they did there would be little or no financial justification for the current, almost mediaeval, anti-plague paranoia that abounds. I suspect the latter is a legacy of times when our export meat trade was totally dependant on the disease-free(hah!) UK market that we then needed - at almost any cost.
Perhaps EU members should discuss whether it would be more preferable for those countries free of the virus (at present!) to accept a certain level of this relatively unthreatening disease and control it through vaccination and other methods instead.
Another point; should not all visitors from the UK and their possessions
be dipped (total immersion - as with sheep) in disinfectant if we were
really serious about keeping out this highly contagious virus? Scuffing
feet in straw is surely not very effective. Or could there be an
economic argument against this?
Tel. 027 70717
3. Organic farming -- the answer to Europe's crisis?
"The cost of containing and cleaning up the messes means that less money is available to promote organic farming. It also means that consumers are paying a hefty additional amount for their food outside the supermarket... Similarly, consumers don't pay at the till for the clean-up of the artificial fertilizers and pesticides used in conventional but not in organic farming. They pay that in their water bill. So while organic food takes a bigger chunk from consumers' wallets than the conventional variety of produce at the supermarket, that is only part of the picture."
REUTERS - FEATURE By Sharman Esarey LONDON
Organic farming -- the answer to Europe's food crisis? (Reuters)
Is cheap food worth the risk? Or is organic the answer? Across Europe, politicians struggling to end food crises ranging from mad cow to foot-and-mouth disease are questioning conventional farming practices and searching for alternatives.
Last week, foot-and-mouth disease spread from England to Scotland and Northern Ireland, prompting other European countries to tighten regulations, taking steps to disinfect travellers and vehicles from the British Isles. European consumers, who have already weathered a raft of food scares including E-coli, campylobacter, salmonella and dioxin, were badly shaken last autumn when the mad cow, or BSE, crisis spread from Britain to the continent.
Given all the bad news, they have grown wary of anything "unnatural" and have shunned genetically modified (GM) foods, which are spliced with foreign genes to help them resist drought or ward off pests. Organic methods -- which strive for sustainable farming and quality food - differ from the intensive farming blamed for the spread of crises such as mad cow, a rain-wasting disease whose the human form has killed more than 80 people.
They put emphasis on animal welfare, soil fertility and creating a self-sustaining system. And that sounds better and better to many consumers and political leaders.
POLITICIANS SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS
With television and newspapers carrying pictures of thousands of animal carcasses being burned across Britain and mainland Europe, politicians are looking for a solution - and a villain. Farming has become increasingly intensive in the search for cheaper food. The big retail food chains and supermarkets want large amounts of produce at competitive prices.
In Britain, five supermarket chains account for more than 80 percent of all grocery sales and their profits exceed those of all of the country's small farmers. Prime Minister Tony Blair took to the road last week and accused supermarkets of being part of the problem, saying they were making profits at the expense of farmers.
"The supermarkets have pretty much of an armlock on you," Blair told a public meeting in Gloucester in the west of England. "We need to go back to the table and work this out on a long-term basis," said Blair, who is said to be considering delaying the call for a general election because of restrictions on movement aimed at curbing the foot-and-mouth crisis.
EUROPE WEIGHING OPTIONS
Europe, which long felt itself to be immune from the BSE food crisis, is considering its options. EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler has announced plans to encourage less intensive farming. In Germany, Farm Minister Renate Kuenast, a Green, unveiled plans in February to raise organic farming to 20 percent over 10 years from 2.6 percent in Europe's largest economy. But last week the Finance Ministry said that extra costs linked to managing the country's outbreak of mad cow disease may not be covered by revenues planned in the 2001 federal budget.
MONEY FOR ORGANIC FARMING
The cost of containing and cleaning up the messes means that less money is available to promote organic farming. It also means that consumers are paying a hefty additional amount for their food outside the supermarket -- in the taxes devoted to compensate farmers and in subsidies directed at conventional farmers in the first place. Similarly, consumers don't pay at the till for the clean-up of the artificial fertilizers and pesticides used in conventional but not in organic farming. They pay that in their water bill.
So while organic food takes a bigger chunk from consumers' wallets than the conventional variety of produce at the supermarket, that is only part of the picture. Besides, ever cheaper food from the shelf pressures producers and processors. Food costs have dropped to some 10 percent of people's income from 30 percent after World War Two.
DEMAND FOR ORGANIC PRODUCE GROWING
"Cheap food actually means higher risk," said Emma Parkin, spokesperson for Britain's Soil Association, founded in 1946 to promote organic farming. "Some might cut corners, or import cheaper (lower quality) produce."
But demand for organic produce is growing as consumer worries
mount. At present, some 5 percent of the European retail food market
is organic, with Sweden leading the pack at 11 percent of the land
organically farmed. In Britain, the average weekly expenditure on
organic food rose to 20.76 pounds ($30.54) in May 2000 from 12.66
a year earlier, according to a report by Taylor Nelson Sofres. The
number of families buying organic during the period rose to 57.4
percent from 43 percent. "We cannot continue to have ever cheaper food," Parkin said, adding "Is it worth ... the risk?"
REUTERS [Entered March 6, 2001]
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The Observer 04/03/2001, UK (Online)
Sacrifices on the altar of cheap food - We slaughter
sick animals only to save profits
writes Matthew Fort Matthew Fort - March 4, 2001 The Observer
Last week we killed 25,000 cattle, pigs and sheep. Why? Foot-and-mouth disease is no threat to humans. It isn't much threat to the animals either. Most would recover if the disease were let to run its natural course. The official arguments in favour of the slaughter policy are entirely economic, and designed to preserve the myth of cheap food and protect the interests of an elite of large-scale farmers.
In 2000 the United Kingdom animal-related export trade, in the form of meat, live animals and breeding stock, amounted to more than £1 billion. This is all based on the UK being designated a disease-free zone. This was a policy we persuaded other European governments to adopt in the early 1990s, and to accept mass slaughter as the means to that end.
These were also the arguments used by government officials to justify killing 250,000 animals during the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 1922-24, and every outbreak since. Nothing has advanced in government thinking in 80 years, in spite of advances in vaccination and other medical techniques, some of them pioneered at the Government's own specialised FMD laboratory in Pirbright, set up in the wake of the 1922-24 debacle.
Indeed, vaccination was adopted by some countries as a means of
controlling the disease, but, in the Alice-in-Blunderland world of
international trade, the use of vaccination meant losing disease-free
status. Just how little official thinking has advanced is scarcely
surprising given the cosy relationship between the upper echelons
of the farming and food production industries and
> government departments.
For smaller farmers, too, the arguments in favour of slaughter are compelling. Were they allowed to recover, the animals would be thinner and less productive. Profit margins are now so small, the farming industry has no incentive to keep such animals alive, and as farmers get paid compensation for their dead animals, it makes more commercial sense to slaughter them than it does to keep them alive.
The commercial imperatives of an élite and the deceitful chimera of cheap food have dictated agricultural policy and the structure of farming for 50 years, with devastating consequences for farming, for its products and for us. We consumers have gone along with it, as we have gone along with all the other consequences of cheap-food policies: centralised production and retailing, and the control of the food chain by a few very powerful companies. Bargain-basement beef, nicely trimmed and packaged; cut-price new potatoes in December; and butter-basted chickens at 95p per kg ensure we don't pay too much attention to the means by which these titbits come to us.
This situation may be the natural consequence of the drift away from the land to the towns that started in the nineteenth century. Now few people have much idea of how our food is produced, and fewer still care much about it, until some hideous complication like BSE or E.coli comes along to frighten us all. And in this vacuum of ignorance, terrible practices have been tolerated because they delivered the promise of cheap food.
In range, quality and cost the situation is a great deal better than it was 50 years ago, but we are only beginning to appreciate the true price. The central flaw in post-war agricultural policy is that it is based on the principle that more is better. That policy is based on a flawed precept that agriculture is just another industry like computers, steel or banking, and should be subject to the same disciplines.
Farming isn't the same. As far as this country is concerned, more
is not better. It is worse, for the animals, for the farms and for
us. It is rum that a society that engages enthusiastically in the
debate on fox hunting, a marginal case of animal cruelty at the worst,
should tolerate, not simply the genocide of thousands of animals,
but also the far greater cruelties of contemporary agro-industry.
Our silence has been bought by the promise of cheap food.