Why the Price of Food has Nothing to do with the Price of Food – and why science has been corrupted

By Colin Tudge

Last night’s Panorama (July 10 2017) fronted by Countryfile’s Tom Heap, explored food and farming post-Brexit: a sign – one of several – that after 40 years of slumber the Establishment is again taking agriculture seriously. Pending disasters concentrate the mind wonderfully.

For although Brexit was supposed to offer Britain huge opportunities to do, er, something or other, it is at least equally likely to hasten our social, economic, and intellectual descent – and in particular, to drive yet more farmers into oblivion yet more quickly, and compromise food quality, animal welfare, wildlife, and landscape. In particular, said the programme, it could (and probably will) make food more expensive and if that happens then even more people would be unable to afford it.

However, with or without Brexit, agriculture needs re-thinking from first principles, which means it needs radical thinking. Panorama, proud flagship of the BBC, for all its excellence is a child of the Establishment and radical thinking is what the Establishment, more or less by definition, does not do.  So we were told as in all such discussions that (a) we must reduce the cost of food production at home by greater “efficiency”, largely achieved by shedding permanent staff; (b), increase production while reducing costs (at least in the long term) by higher and higher technologies, focusing now on robots, GMOs, and fancier and fancier herbicides and pesticides; and (c), tighten our belts and adapt our diets to whatever it is that the high-tech, high-input food industry finds it most profitable to produce (because in the global free market only the most profitable can survive at all). Either that or (d), we must play the global market even more ruthlessly than we do already and simply buy from whoever in the world produces food most cheaply.

To conventional thinkers, all this seems obvious. Those who say otherwise are written off as dreamers and/ or backsliders, leftie loonies, anti-science, “unrealistic”, elitist, and so on. Already a million people in Britain must resort to food banks, and any further increase in food prices will “hit the poor” even harder. At least at first sight this kind of analysis seems perfectly logical and humane and is defended by sober-sided and well-dressed gentlemen and ladies in parliament, on television, and in learned journals, and yet is the most absolute nonsense.

For in truth, the reasons why so many people in Britain cannot afford food that’s good and fresh has almost nothing to do with the cost of production; and the reasons farmers go bust has almost nothing to do with their supposed “inefficiency”; and the current obsession in high places with robots and GMOs and industrial chemistry is a horrible perversion of science and a huge waste of money which, in the end, is public money. Food is too expensive for more and more people in well-heeled Britain for three main reasons, none of which has anything directly to do with the cost of production, and none of which is alleviated by attempts to make production more “efficient” by sacking people, joining big farms into big estates, or festooning the whole exercize with high-tech. Attempts to mitigate rising prices in the short term by buying more from the world at large will only transfer misery elsewhere, as indigenous agricultures everywhere that evolved to serve the needs of their people are replaced by industrialized monocultures owned by corporates, to provide commodity crops for export.

The first and most obvious reason why food now seems too dear for so many people in Britain is economic inequality. According to the latest New Internationalist (July/August 2017 p 21) the richest 10% in Britain make 17.4 times as much as the poorest 10%. In the US – the world’s leaders in inequality – the richest 10% earn more than 20 times as much as the poorest. In Denmark, the ratio of richest to poorest is just a little over five. Britain used to be nearer to Denmark: in 1978 the very richest were less than eight times as rich as the poorest, But the “free” market put paid to that. The average Brit, according to Panorama, spends 8% of their income on food. But for the richest, what is 8% to most would surely be too little to register – or would be if the very rich ate the same kind of things as most people. For the poorest, though, what for the average is 8% must be nearer to 30 or 40%. It is impossible to say what a reasonable expenditure or a “fair price” for food ought to be when the discrepancy between rich and poor is so great.

But people who aren’t positively rich can’t afford to spend 30% plus of their income on food because they are obliged to spend 30-50% on average on their mortgage or, more realistically, on rent. Food plus housing, which the UN very reasonably suggests are basic human rights, thus may account for 80% of total income, leaving 20% for clothes, buses, and – dare we venture such indulgence? – for leisure. Given that poor people have a low income to start with, the amounts allowable for each are horribly small. Landlords demand to be paid on pain of eviction so some or all of the rest just has to give way. In short: the second reason that food seems too dear is that housing is so expensive. It doesn’t need to be. As Simon Fairlie pointed out recently in The Land, people 60 years ago spent on average only 11% of their income on accommodation. Houses are dear now because successive governments since 1980 have deliberately limited the supply for the same reason that De Beer’s limits the price of diamonds – to keep the prices up. Most of the 30-50% we now spend on housing goes to bankers to service mortgages, or to landlords. In Britain only a small proportion of our income is spent on tangibles. Most just disappears into the system.

Then again, of every £1.00 spent on food in a supermarket the farmer receives on average only 18p. Farmers who sell through traditional high-street retailers may receive about 35% of the retail price and those who sell through farmers’ markets may receive 60% plus. Thus in theory at least a farmer could double or triple his or her income without any change in husbandry simply by a change in marketing. Putting it another way, food is as dear as it is largely because the food chains are too long – not in miles but in complexity. We shouldn’t be trying to reduce costs still further by sacking workers, and with bigger and bigger machines and fancier and fancier high tech. We should be seeking ways to cut down on the middle-men and extraneous processors and tiers of management. It makes no sense to cut down on the production costs that account for a mere 20% while leaving the 80% untouched. At least it makes no sense to ordinary people. Presumably it does make sense to those who run the world.

One presumably unintended consequence of the present, nonsensical food strategy is the perversion of science. Science is surely vital if we are to solve the world’s food problems – but the science that matters most is that of ecology: to show how to farm productively (or as productively as is necessary) without wrecking the biosphere. There are huge issues to be explored, many or most of which have been sadly neglected – not least those of soil biota; and, more broadly, those of small-scale indigenous farmers the world over. But the lion’s share of research money is spent instead on science and technologies that are intended primarily to reinforce high-tech industrial agriculture – to maximize productivity and centralize wealth, and as far as possible to cut the labour force which, according to some analyses, is the very opposite of what we really need to do.

Brexit is raising problems we didn’t know we had – to do with food prices and the future of farming as a whole and the fate of the biosphere. But we won’t solve those problems ad hoc. We can’t solve any of farming’s problems, or any other social or environmental or health programme unless we look at everything we do, and take for granted from first principles: not just at the economics of farming as things are now but at the whole basic of the economy, and the structure of society, and the roles of science, and, most importantly, at our values. What do we really think matters? As the literary critic F R Leavis put the matter, “By what do we stand?”

July 11 2017

2 thoughts on “Why the Price of Food has Nothing to do with the Price of Food – and why science has been corrupted

  1. I’m not sure that governments have limited the supply of housing. Developers more like.
    And the banking system is heavily implicated in the rise and rise of house prices – now you can pay a mortgage until you are 70 and can borrow 5 times your annual income. But that level of private debt cannot continue increasing for ever.
    Steve Keen, the economist, has spoken/written extensively on this.

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