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Cheap food may be costing us the earth

Every apple, pear or lemon we buy comes with a backstory, a cost that isn’t factored into the price at the checkout. A new report, welcomed by HRH Prince Charles, scrutinises food supply chains, uncovering the true cost of our everyday shopping habits. The results are surprising: organic food is less expensive than you may think, while regular products are far too cheap.

When we buy an orange or pineapple in the supermarket, we imagine that the price shown reflects the costs involved in producing it. This logic leads us to believe that intensively farmed and low-welfare food items are cheaper to put on the shelf. However, new research from organic trading company Eosta, Soil & More, and financial consultants EY and, co-sponsored by Triodos Bank, reveals that the social and environmental implications of production make the ‘true cost’ of food much higher than you may think.

The study, titled ‘True Cost Accounting in Farming and Finance’ and released in June 2017, considered the impact on health and society, as well as the detriments and negative impacts on our climate, biodiversity, water use and soils. By considering these six elements, the researchers were able to build a broader picture of how food systems operate in the wider context of production.

“Providing a measure of what these costs are and their social and environmental consequences would equip consumers with enough information to make informed decisions that reflect their values”

For example, while organic and non-organic apples were found to be broadly similar on many facets, the difference in impact on health was dramatic. This difference is attributed to the heavy use of pesticides, particularly at a late stage of growing, having negative health consequences for pickers during harvest. From these stats, Eosta were able to calculate that buying organic apples would save 27 sick days, per hectare per year, meaning a 17 pence (19 euro cents) per kilo advantage for organic apples. They also identified some other surprising impacts in their research, including:

  • Buy one organic pineapple and save 125 litres of greenhouse gases
  • Buy organic pears and save 6m3 of fertile soil (per 1000sqm and year)
  • Buy organic grapes and save 14.708 litres of water (per 100sqm and year)

Long-term organic advocate HRH Prince Charles welcomed the study, highlighting that a concentration on the financial bottom line would only derail efforts to maintain and improve our agricultural land to provide sustainability and food security. As Eosta CEO Volkert Engelsman pointed out, “The report makes clear that organic food is not too expensive, but rather conventional food is too cheap.”

Providing a measure of what these costs are and their social and environmental consequences would equip consumers with enough information to make informed decisions that reflect their values. This is a major step in empowering the consumer by providing transparency and reflects our own commitments to providing full transparency around where our customers’ savings and investments are lent.

When it comes to food and farming, Triodos Bank recognises the impact that certain food systems can have on our planet and the people who are part of the production cycle. For this reason, we only invest in organic, sustainable farming as we believe it recognises the relationship between our environment, our health and the food we eat. Organic farming avoids the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers and maintains the highest standards of animal welfare which, ultimately, means less strain on the ecology of our planet.

In the future, the true cost of products should be on clear display. As consumers we vote on the world we want to see through the daily purchases we make. By making hidden costs transparent and informing the customer, we can allow people to make an informed decision and spend or save their money in a way that reflects their values.

The full report, ‘True Cost Accounting in Farming and Finance’, can be found here.

What do you think of "Cheap food may be costing us the earth"

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Claire Graham Kellerman 4 months ago

I love healthy, organic, trusted farmers, and garden foods, that build a strong and resilient local community, and my family!

Reply to Claire Graham Kellerman
Matilda Upton 3 months ago

This research highlights an important and usually overlooked aspect of food production. If only transparency were the answer – I think realistically the only sustainable motivating factor to buy less ecologically damaging food is to create an “eco tax” and/or “eco subsidies” to help the consumer make the best choices. Ideals are admirable, but at the end of the day most families are on a budget and their food choices will continue to reflect that.

Reply to Claire Graham Kellerman
Matilda Upton 3 months ago

Sorry Claire that was posted incorrectly so not an intentional reply to your post!

Nikki Jones 4 months ago

I can’t see a link to the full report. Am I going mad??

Reply to Nikki Jones
Peter Brown 3 months ago

I agree Nikki, I looked but could not find any link to the report either – where is it Triodos?

Reply to Peter Brown
Lyndon Ashmore 3 months ago

Hello Peter, thank you for your message. You can find the full report here: http://soilandmore.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/True-Cost-Accounting-Report-for-Food-Farming-and-Finance.pdf

Reply to Nikki Jones
Lyndon Ashmore 3 months ago
Margaret Clarke 3 months ago

Very challenging. This message needs to understood by ALL. And plans to adjust to this realisation set up and implemented a.s.a.p.

Chloe Anthony 3 months ago

Please can we have a link to the report itself!

Reply to Chloe Anthony
Lyndon Ashmore 3 months ago
Sylvia Clare 3 months ago

exactly – we need to make food accessible to those on low incomes by making sure they are not on such low incomes, then food can be realistically priced

peter brown 3 months ago

Your summary is too brief – insufficient information for critical analysis.

Rosy Jones 3 months ago

To read the report, just type in ‘Eosta, the true cost of food’ on the internet and a report seems to come up.

Matilda Upton 3 months ago

This research highlights an important and usually overlooked aspect of food production. If only transparency were the answer – I think realistically the only sustainable motivating factor to buy less ecologically damaging food is to create an “eco tax” and/or “eco subsidies” to help the consumer make the best choices. Ideals are admirable, but at the end of the day most families are on a budget and their food choices will continue to reflect that.

Christine Brosnan 3 months ago

I can clearly see from the article that cheap food is indeed ‘costing the earth’ If more people could support organic food then the cost might come down

Barrie Bain 3 months ago

I’d be able to comment if I could actually read the report ……. I’ve looked at the press releases from when it was issued in June and there are no links to the report.

Reply to Barrie Bain
Lyndon Ashmore 3 months ago

Hello Barrie, thank you for your message. The report is now live and can be found here: http://soilandmore.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/True-Cost-Accounting-Report-for-Food-Farming-and-Finance.pdf

Theodore G. 3 months ago

Excellent point made.
The same holds not only for food production but for any large scale production of goods.
I believe that the solution lies in the reduction of income inequality and poverty.
This would have a two-fold effect: on one hand it would make the costlier alternatives (i.e. organic foods) more affordable by a large number of people and on the other hand, it would allow for a higher and more refined level of product knowledge by the consumer.
IMHO, the best tool that exists today in order to arrive at the above, is the Unconditional (or Universal) Basic Income (UBI).

Ian Plewis 3 months ago

Unfortunately, Prince Charles’ endorsement is not a guarantee of sound research. Clearly the sponsoring organisation had a vested interest in the results. But the report appears not to be publicly available and so I can only echo the comments of previous correspondents and urge Triodos to make it available so that those of us interested in the findings can scrutinise it properly. This lack of transparency is unfortunate.

Reply to Ian Plewis
Lyndon Ashmore 3 months ago

Hello Ian, thank you for your message. The full report pdf can be found here: http://soilandmore.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/True-Cost-Accounting-Report-for-Food-Farming-and-Finance.pdf

Reply to Lyndon Ashmore
Ian Plewis 3 months ago

Thank you for providing this link. I have now looked at the report and note the following:
1. It is based on a pilot study with no indication when the main study will be carried out.
2. It is almost impossible to work out where the data used in the report come from and how they were analysed.
3. But we are told that much of the data for a particular product come from just one organic farm. We are not told how this farm was chosen nor do we know how data for non-organic farms was collected. The sample is too small for any reliable conclusions.
4. We are told that data for pesticide use come from European and US sources – but most of the farms appear to be located outside Europe and the US!
5. On the basis of this report, the conclusions are not warranted and the points highlighted in the Colour of Money article cannot be taken seriously.

Reply to Ian Plewis
Lyndon Ashmore 3 months ago

Hello Ian. Thanks again for your message and feedback. At Triodos Bank we are very supportive of the idea of integrating the true cost (environmental and social) of food to be visible in balance sheets and the pricing of food, as we believe it will lead to better decision making and improved transparency. We are very encouraged by the progress Eosta and the other partners have made in this first pioneering stage. The next phase will explore the wider application of the methodology and will also look at how financial institutions can apply the principles in their own balance sheets.

howard price 3 months ago

I think if anything, the weakness of it is the use of the word “may”. Is it or isn’t it? We need to know. We need to be able to see incontravertible evidence and if that evidence is in the negative it will really make people sit up and take notice. People understandably make decisions based on cost and will continue to do so/have to do so unless they are shown to be definitely destroying their own environment.


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