The Sustainable Food Trust recently organised a meeting in Kentucky on the theme of true cost accounting, which brought together around 50 leading scientists, researchers, policy makers, representatives of NGOs and funders.

The proposition we explored was the need to put an economic value on the environmental, human health, and social damage caused by our increasingly industrialised and intensive farming and food systems. These are already paid for in small and large ways – from increases in our water bills to clean up pollutants, to paying through our taxes for the treatment costs of diseases, such as diabetes and antibiotic resistant infections, in our increasingly expensive National Health Service.

At the moment, these costs are not factored into the price of our food, so both our farming and food markets are skewed in favour of the least sustainable method of production, or those which cause the most damage to the environment and public health.

Conversely, because sustainable producers are not rewarded for the benefits they deliver to society as a whole, this has created a perverse situation where sustainably produced food is more expensive than its intensively produced counterpart, which is patently absurd.

At the Kentucky meeting, an international research programme was launched, with the aim of identifying and putting a price on, each of the damaging costs arising from intensive farming. This would enable the introduction of a range of taxes and incentives that could potentially ensure, that in the future, farmers and food producers who cause damage to the environment and human health would be penalised, whilst those who protect the environment and promote human health would be properly rewarded for these beneficial outcomes.

It was also agreed that it was essential to increase public awareness of these distortions in the economics of our food systems. To this end, it occurred to me that it might be useful to subject myself to an extended interview with John Humphrys.

Before I go any further, I should declare my interest, not that it afforded me much comfort on this particular occasion. I have known John for about 30 years. I first met him as an aspiring part-time organic farmer who sought my advice on converting his non-organic dairy herd. Since then, our friendship has been punctuated by long and often combative discussions about everything from the meaning of life to the price of carrots. John always taking a devil’s advocate position.

So I knew in advance he would adopt a ‘no holds barred’ approach to the subject of true cost accounting, ruthlessly interrogating me to expose any flaws in my argument. He would regard it as a matter of professional pride not to let any friendship between us get in the way of his forensic dissection of the proposed topic. So it’s not surprising that, although I have been interviewed by him several times before on the Today programme, I felt somewhat apprehensive as I drove to John’s house.

Perhaps naively, I had failed to anticipate that John would laser in on what he perceived to be the weakest link in the case for true cost accounting – the challenge of putting a price on the various damaging outcomes of our present food and farming systems. Almost as soon as the interview commenced, Humphrys had me on the back foot (as he does with so many politicians – it’s no wonder they fear him), inviting me to succinctly summarise the case for true cost accounting in 30 seconds and pouncing on me the moment I deviated from this task. A couple of minutes later, with a glint in his eye, he went in for the kill.  You can click on the link to hear the discussion, but in terms of winning the argument, I never fully recovered from this low point. I felt distinctly deflated and diminished at the end of the interview.

Inevitably, after a good night’s sleep, I came up with all the points I should have made in responding to his criticisms. For instance, I need to have had some pre-prepared ‘case studies’ of how it is actually possible, though of course not simple, to price the damage caused by intensive farming.

For example, water companies know exactly how much it costs to strip out pesticides; medical costs can be easily assessed; and the Stern Review did a pretty good job of putting a price on what it would cost society as a whole, if it fails to respond to climate change.

On reflection I have concluded that, apart from damage to my ego, a good savaging by Humphrys was exactly what I needed – after all he is the master. If we needed someone to strip our arguments bare and expose the magnitude of the task at hand in persuading the public of the need for this fundamental economic review of our food systems, then he was just the man for the job.

After we turned the microphone off, we walked across the road for a set of tennis in John’s local park. Although neither of us are great tennis players, what we lack in skill, we make up in competitive instincts. On this occasion I won the set 6-4!

“And so, Mr Holden, do you think Humphrys was right? Should we give up arguing the case for true cost accounting?” Of course not!  The discussion has, if anything, strengthened my conviction that true-cost accounting is an essential component in the transition towards more sustainable food systems. I am bloodied perhaps, but also unbowed. Take note John, I shall return!

Holden v Humphrys: Debating true cost accounting "Holden v Humphrys: Debating true cost accounting"

Holden v Humphrys: Debating True Cost Accounting

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  • http://www.buckybox.com/ Bucky Box

    Thanks so much for sharing Patrick, it’s really important to share the lows as well as the highs so we can all improve and achieve our aims. We’ve had ups and downs of our own, and we might just write our own piece on that matter soon. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Martien Lankester

    Well done Patrick, that was certainly not all that bad! On the contrary, it is the easy way out if one, as John Humphrys does, on the one hand ackowledges different price increasing factors, but then leaves it to you to make the calculation. This calculation is an obligation (and indeed a challenge) for society as a whole, and not just for the whistle blowers like us! It is an obligation since this issue touches some of the most basic elements of the quality of life: soil, health, food, environment, biodiversity ..

    But you are right, we do need practical examples with realistic calculations.

    Chapeau for bringing forward this discussion!

    One of the other initiatives I came across is http://www.trueprice.org which aims to mainstream products with a (more) inclusive price.

  • Darko Znaor

    Dear Patrick,

    I find your post very interesting. The true cost of food (or better to say environmental and social costs of farm and farm upstream sectors) was the core of my PhD., which I sent you more than a year ago. You might be interested to look into it again – I have tried to answer some of the questions which you raise in your post, including a price on, each of the damaging costs arising from farming. Cheers, Darko Znaor (darko@znaor.eu)

  • Radio 4 Listener

    As someone who finds John Humphrys’s style of interviewing to be unnecessarily combative and more about point scoring points than getting to the truth, I think you do yourself a big disservice. In the interview you calmly make your points well (in contrast, and not unusually, Humphrys sounds like he’s on the verge of launching into a rant), and I have to agree that he’s better at “winning” in rhetorical terms than on substance. He made the claim that you can’t derive a price of environmental and other impacts of food production. He provides no backing for this, just asserts it as fact. And where he is right he’s stating the obvious: that the task of getting people to pay more for food is going to be difficult.