Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) is the latest organisation to add to a growing body of work that seeks to explore the hidden costs of food production. Their recently released report, Cheap Food Costs Dear, takes an uncompromising look at the reality behind cheap meat. As this report reveals, cheap meat is not actually cheap at all. In truth, it is costing us in ways we may never have stopped to consider.

When it comes to the negative impacts of industrial livestock production, the list is startling. From water pollution to greenhouse gas emissions, and from biodiversity loss to detrimental impacts on human health, intensively produced meat is bad. It is bad for us, it is bad for the planet, and of course it is bad for the animals that suffer in cramped conditions, unnaturally fattened and given excessive amounts of antibiotics.

The cost of all this is enormous, and CIWF has pulled together some startling figures:

  • The European Nitrogen Assessment estimate environmental damage relating to nitrogen from agriculture in the EU costs between €20-150 billion per year. This outweighs the benefit of nitrogen fertiliser for farmers by €10-100 billion euros per year.
  • The European Commission estimates 45% of soils in the EU are degraded “evidenced by low levels of organic matter”. This is costing the EU economy €38 billion per year.
  • There is mounting evidence that the overuse of antibiotics by the intensive livestock industry is directly contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistance. The additional costs of antibiotic resistance in the EU is currently estimated at €1.5 billion per year. But a study commissioned by the UK government estimates that between now and 2050 the world will lose between $60 and 100 trillion worth of economic output if antimicrobial resistance is not tackled.

CIWF added together all of the costs listed in the report to estimate the total economic cost of cheap meat for the EU – a shocking €168 billion per year.

But who pays for all this? And why – with the external cost of production running so high – is some meat so cheap? CIWF explain that, “the low cost of animal products is achieved only by an economic sleight of hand.” Consumers actually pay for their cheap meat three times: once at the checkout, once through taxes for Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies which prop up intensive farming and once through taxes to pay for pollution clean up and health care costs.

But is all meat bad? It is essential to differentiate between production systems when assessing the true cost of meat. The majority of these negative impacts stem from the production of crops used to feed livestock, and not necessarily from the livestock themselves. Traditional mixed farming systems that keep livestock on pasture can actually provide a range of benefits, such as increased biodiversity and the sequestration of carbon by grassland and hedgerows. In these systems, livestock plays an essential role in building and maintaining soil fertility and in utilising land unfit for crops. In addition, meat from animals fed on grass is said to be of higher nutritional quality.

These benefits can be called positive externalities, but, like negative externalities, they are overlooked by the current pricing system. As well as incorporating the true costs of unsustainable systems, it is essential we recognise and reward farmers for protecting the environment and providing a range of services that go beyond the production of food. Contributions such as maintaining the landscape and public access, providing jobs and rural cohesion, and ensuring the continuation of the skills and resources needed to produce food sustainably in the future should be among those acknowledged.

So how can this be incorporated within the way we account for food production’s costs and impacts? According to CIWF’s report, there are a wide range of measures that can be used to internalise these externalities. These include legislation, fiscal measures, codes of practice and standards set by food businesses.

Taxes are perhaps the most common way to influence behaviour, and both environmental taxes, such as the carbon tax, and dietary taxes, such as a sugar tax, are already used or being discussed in some countries. Tax breaks could be implemented to incentivise certain practices, such as high animal welfare standards. Similarly, subsidies could be created to encourage and enable those who wish to farm more sustainably. This mixture of ‘carrots and sticks’ is what’s needed to begin to shift the current system in the right direction.

With the publication of reports like Cheap Food Costs Dear, true cost accounting can certainly be seen to be making headway. Whether you are a consumer, a farmer or a policy-maker, it would be a good idea to take notice of this growing move towards addressing our skewed economic system.

Photograph: Compassion in World Farming

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