Do you know how much your food really costs? Like the Sustainable Food Trust, the US-based organisation Food Tank sees the need to be honest about the true cost of food as an essential prerequisite for making its production more sustainable. Food Tank has released a report on The Real Cost of Food which examines the social, environmental and health impacts of food production. A replay of the launch event for the report, which took place in Washington last week, can be viewed here.

Taking up the baton of True Cost Accounting, Food Tank have worked tirelessly to show people how food can have far-reaching and long-lasting impacts, the costs of which are not borne by the farmer, nor directly by the consumer, but by society as a whole.

This can be difficult to get our heads round, as these impacts are not always obvious or visible and it can be hard to draw connections between them. For example, many consumers would not recognise the link between buying a cheap chicken for their roast dinner and the conditions of workers in chicken processing factories (which were recently highlighted in an Oxfam report), or the environmental impact of chicken feed production, or the increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistance, some of which is associated with the high use of antibiotics in chicken sheds.

Understanding the economic costs of these issues is harder still. Food Tank’s report pulls together some shocking figures, including:

  • Excess weight and obesity costs $2 trillion globally in healthcare costs
  • Subsidies and insurance to farmers in the United States cost taxpayers $20 billion per year
  • Subsidies in the European Union cost €58 billion
  • Antibiotic resistance costs £10 billion per year in the UK and $55 billion per year in the US
  • Endocrine disrupting chemicals found in pesticides cost the EU €157 billion
  • Low wages paid by companies such as McDonald’s cost US taxpayers $153 billion per year in government assistance programmes

The truth is, the market is distorted in favour of those who produce food unsustainably, while those who farm in an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible way generally find themselves bearing the additional costs of doing so. Intensive large-scale farmers, on the other-hand, are propped up by subsidies and do not have to account for most of the damage they cause in producing their so-called cheap food.

While damage is not reflected in the price of our food, this doesn’t mean we’re not paying for it. Instead, society pays for this damage through taxpayers’ money, which is spent on subsidies, environmental cleanup and rising health care costs associated with poor diet, worker conditions, and farm pollution. There are also the long-term potentially irreversible types of damage that will inevitably have enormous economic impacts, including antibiotic resistant superbugs, climate change, and the loss of natural resources.

But how can this system be rectified? Food Tank explain how True Cost Accounting “can lower the cost of food produced sustainably, while incorporating negative externalities into the retail price of ‘cheap’ food.” How can we do this? First of all, we need to understand where and how the damage is occurring and then find a way of quantifying it. Once this is done it is much easier to factor it into production costs.

We then need to look at scaling up True Cost Accounting, and Food Tank’s report covers this in detail, explaining why it’s essential for this model to be integrated within the entire food system. This is no easy task, particularly due to gaps in research, which means we don’t yet know what all the costs are, lack of consensus on what sustainability and True Cost Accounting means, and differing opinions on the idea of assigning monetary value to natural resources.

But this report is also a call to action which challenges businesses, civil society, consumers, farmers and funders to all take responsibility for changing the food system. In fact, the report is highly encouraging, containing case studies of organisations that are already employing True Cost Accounting principles, including SEKEMTrue Price, and West Louisville Food Port, as well as a very helpful list of civil society groups (of which The Sustainable Food Trust is one), business groups, and academic centres that are working on True Cost Accounting.

The Real Cost of Food is a must read for anyone who wants to understand how their food choices impact the world, and their wallets. But it is also necessary to get governments and international agencies to recognise the need for True Cost Accounting in food production so that in future taxpayers’ money is used to help resolve the huge problems faced by the food system, rather than continuing to make these worse. Working with Food Tank and many other organisations this is a central objective of the SFT.