11th May 2022
A question of food
Food is a daily necessity, yet for many it is unaffordable. Recent research points out that in the UK 2 million people cannot afford to eat every day https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/may/09/more-than-2m-adults-in-uk-cannot-afford-to-eat-every-day-survey-finds. Is there a flaw in our food production and distribution system?
It seems to me that food production in the UK is caught between two objectives: that food should be produced as cheaply as possible, and that profits for the shareholders should be maximised. Producing food as cheaply as possible has been seen as a way of ensuring everyone can afford to eat. However producing food cheaply doesn’t necessarily make it affordable.
Reducing the cost of food can be achieved in various way:-
- Industrialising processes whether that is the Chorleywood method of making bread or factory farming livestock
- Large scale monoculture farming where land is cleared to grow single crops on a large scale – including the clearing of rain forests.
- Intensified farming where animals are kept in barns and fed high protein diets rather than having a free range lifestyle, foraging and grazing as they go – low intensive free range animal foraging requires a much greater area of land. On the other hand, eg high protein diets fed to indoor animals has to be grown somewhere.
- Intensive use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers to maintain high crop yields. This can become an expensive option when the cost of these inputs rise.
- Keeping costs down by paying low wages and/ or by employing people on a seasonal or zero hours basis only. This applies throughout the food industry from the farmhand to the supermarket check out.
- Automation of processes whether that is robots picking crops or automated diary parlours miking cows.
- Importing food from countries where labour costs are even lower. is of course a flaw here.
Many of these cost saving practices involve reducing wages and/ jobs. As wages and jobs fall so the need for even cheaper food rises. There seems to be a flaw in the system!. Recently Ranjit Singh Boparan, the UK’s biggest poultry supplier of chicken, queried how it was that his industry could producing chickens that sold for less that a pint of beer – and whether such low prices could be maintained. In part he was questioning whether there were any ways in which costs can be cuts. Yet even at £2.66 (Tesco’s) for a chicken, chicken is still of the menu for a lot of people.
During the year April 2021 to March 2022 the Trussell Trust (the UK’s largest food bank charity) distributed over 2.1 million emergency food parcel, an increase of 14 compared with the previous year. https://www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/end-year-stats/
People who have to resort to food banks to eat, are not just people who are unemployed. They are also those who, because of disabilities and illness, receive disability benefits, those who are elderly and living on state pensions, those who are employed on zero hours contracts, and even those who are in full employment. The current minimum wage is £8.91 per hour for those over the age of 21. The Job Seekers Allowance is £77 a week for those 25 and over – depending on circumstances, this may be supplemented by Universal Credit. The full basic State Pension is £141.85 per week. All of these are less than the minimum wage recommended by Living Wage Foundation – £9.90 (£11.05 in London). Whether even this figure will be sufficient at a time of sharply rising fuel costs (and the knock on effect that will have an all products) is yet to be seen.
We have created an economy that does not provide the poorest with the necessary financial resources to enable them to buy the daily food they need – let alone enough to pay for heating, period products, housing, travel etc. Why is this so? Because the economic model we use says that profits must take priority. If costs rise such that they risk profits, then costs must be reduced – even if that means reducing wages and employment opportunities. As a fig leaf, a vague promise is proffered that, by maintaining profits and ensuring that the economy continues to grows, the trickle down effect will – ultimately – increase the wealth of even the poorest in society. No where does our economic system suggest that goods should be priced at a level that allows the workforce to be paid a genuinely fair wage – a wage such that they could afford the essentials of life including chicken and a pint of beer.
If everyone was paid at levels of pay (including benefits and pensions) that allowed them to eat properly, heat their homes, pay for their accommodation etc, then yes prices of some goods (such as chicken) would go up. And of course that proposed ‘fair’ level of pay would have to be sufficient for the recipients to pay those higher food (and other) prices. There would be a knock on for those already on higher incomes in that their day to day living costs too would go up – but usually the higher our income the smaller the proportion we spend on essentials such as food so the impact would be smaller the higher one’s income. Would we not all feel more comfortable as a society knowing that everyone was being properly fed and that no one was benefiting because someone else was being underpaid?
This reinvisiging of the economy is not a pipe dream but is to be found in the shape of Doughnut Economics. In her book, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, Oxford University’s Kate Raworth argues for a radical overhaul of our traditional economic models: “Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet,” she says. “In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials … while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend.”
Doughnut Economics challenges our existing profit orientated economics that sees economic growth as the only way forwards. Doughnut Economics argues that we can have a more caring and more sophisticated economic model which has two key objectives. First that everyone should have a comfortable standard of living – one that meets all seven priorities of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Second that all economic activity should be sustainable and not cause irreparable damage to life on earth – ensuring a stable climate, fertile soils, healthy oceans, a protective ozone layer, ample freshwater and abundant biodiversity. https://doughnuteconomics.org/about-doughnut-economics
This economic model would not only prioritise the needs of the 2 million in the UK who cannot afford to eat on a daily basis; it would also prioritise the needs of the 3 billion globally who are malnourished. And it would prioritise the well-being of chickens that are reared for less than the cost of a latte!