Claims of what food to eat or not to eat, if you want to be friendlier to the environment are myriad – go vegan, organic is best, dairy is scary, ditch almond milk, eat pasture-fed meat. The producer, and what they’re paid for their work, rarely figures. Focusing on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, and not the ‘who’ leaves us blind to aspects of the food system that are exploiting people and the planet.

Despite a constant tug of war on whether food is too expensive or too cheap, the price paid to fill our baskets rarely reflects the price received by producers. Increasingly, the money farmers receive for their toil barely covers the cost of production, sometimes less. A coffee farmer only gets 1p of any £2.50 cup of coffee. In Spain – the world’s top exporter of olive oil – olive farmers have seen their prices fall year on year. The average prices received by farmers in the US for commodities on the open market have hovered around 37% of their production costs since 2008. While it’s important to note the role of subsidies in propping up farmers financially, they are geopolitical instruments that distort true value. While subsidies have the potential, alongside other tools such as policies and tax regulations, to create a food system that’s fairer for farmers, alone they are akin to vouchers while fair prices provide economic justice.

Poverty in food production

Focusing more on the environmental impact of farming practices and production, and less on the environmental implications of producers operating on volatile economic footing, means we’re looking through a one-dimensional lens at the effect of our eating habits on the environment. The low prices received by producers is driving exploitation. When farmers are not paid fairly, unable to cover the cost of sustainable production or be provided their human rights through a living income, they may be driven to cutting costs and corners.

For many individual farmers, the only option for making enough money to get by, is to produce more. Farms become bigger and more intensive. Evidence suggests factory farming is wrecking our food systems and harming communities. The raison d’etre is to produce as much food for as little money as possible, but at what price for society and the environment? Poor productivity and low incomes tend to lead to deforestation. In Côte D’Ivoire, almost 60% of the cocoa that is not from certified sources is estimated to have been grown on what was primary forest. A typical cacao farmer earns just 74p (approximately 94 cents) a day, living in abject poverty – the World Bank defines ‘extreme poverty’ as living on less than $1.90 per person per day.

Most of the world’s 767 million poorest people are farmers. In contrast to developing and transition countries, evidence of agricultural poverty in advanced economies is difficult to find. It exists, but it is hidden. The Swiss Farmers’ Union reported that in 2005, 27% of Swiss farming households were working poor. In 2019, James Metcalfe, a tenant sheep farmer in Derbyshire featured in God’s Lone Country, a short film commissioned by the Royal Society of the Arts’ ‘Food, Farming and Countryside Commission’ to highlight hidden rural poverty. In the film, James talks about not always being able to afford the food he produces, in the supermarket. As a farmer, he has had to consider using a foodbank. Oxfam’s 2019 ‘Behind the Barcode’ scorecard showed that no supermarket ensured that the workers and producers in their supply chains were paid enough to eat properly. It’s an alarming paradox that the people producing the world’s food go, hungry.

Farming and wellbeing

A sustainable future cannot be achieved without eradicating hunger and poverty. When farmers and workers have to choose who in the family gets to eat and who doesn’t, or they can’t afford to buy wholesome food for themselves and their family, the current system isn’t working. The COVID-19 crisis has cast a spotlight once more on the crucial role of farmers, as well as others within the food system in maintaining and protecting the health of the population. They are ‘key workers’. How we value farmers will determine whether we choose to grow a food system that works with nature or against it, a food system that becomes a hotbed for diseases or one centered on holistic wellbeing. How we value farmers now, will shape farming in the future.

The National Family Farm Coalition in the US, states that their farmer members identify the lack of fair prices as one of the biggest barriers to viable livelihoods. Not able to see a future in farming, young people are choosing not to pursue a career in agriculture. Research by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) of the United Nations has revealed a global trend of ageing farmer populations. The average age of farmers worldwide is around 60 years old. Andalusian olive producers are turning their back on their farms, as they cannot be sustained by the degrading prices they’re offered. If there are no farmers, there is no food. As farmers down tools, the countryside hemorrhages its rich cultural heritage – the landscapes, traditions, languages, craftsmanship – that farmers sustain. A healthy environment is not only about sequestering carbon and protecting habitats, but also about preserving local culture, heritage and communities.

Where’s the power?

The money we pay for food is driving inequality. The accumulation of power in global food supply chains, which predominantly lies with global mega-corporations such as Mondelez, Danone, and PepsiCo dilutes farmers’ bargaining power, puts them under sustained price pressure and facilitates unfair trading practices. Just last week, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, announced that despite a rise in profits during the lockdown period, they had given suppliers a deadline to agree price cuts. In June, Nestlé reported that they would turn their back on Fairtrade cacao and sugar farmers after a decade of working together.

Instead of asking if food is too cheap or expensive, we should be asking, where does the money go? Farmers and other primary producers only get 8-10% of the gross value added to food in the UK. Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, argues that this should be doubled. Oxfam’s research reveals that adding just 0.4% to what we pay in a supermarket would be enough for shrimp-processing workers in Indonesia to lead a decent life. Despite the clear need to be paying farmers fairly, only one ethical certification, Fairtrade, promises a minimum price for farmers and workers.

Fairness creates resilience

During the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘resilient’ has seemed to replace ‘sustainable’ as the adjective to describe the food system we wish to have. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of having a food system that’s able to adapt and change: strengthening connections between people and places, it is a system that values partnership, community and wellbeing. Now feels a time of possibility, to pause and reflect. We have a chance to do better. We are arriving at a junction, and we have choices to make. Continue to fill the pockets of a handful of shareholders, ignoring the ecological and climate crisis or invest in farmers and the environment?

The current global food system is a race to the bottom. But it doesn’t have to be a race with profitability as its only prize. It could be a race where everyone running has a fair chance at winning. A Royal Society of Arts project piloting citizen economic councils found that participants from every socioeconomic background cared equally about a fair food system. Structures need to change to make it possible for everyone to vote for fairness with their purse. Systems must change to evenly distribute value throughout. Such changes are many and varied, stretching from a local to global level. Examples include the need for a more regional approach to food systems, living incomes, stronger directives on unfair trading practices, investing in a just agricultural transition, greater regulation of own brand ethical certification schemes, building cooperation and cooperatives, government recognition of the social, economic, environmental and cultural contribution of food production, education and fairer terms of global trade. Who produces our food and what they are paid should be much higher on the agenda of discussions about resilience in food systems, for the sake of society and the environment.

Photo: Jimmy Smith

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