‘True cost’ of cheap food is health and climate crises, says commission

16/07/2019 - 08:46
The ‘true cost’ of cheap, unhealthy food is a ‘spiralling’ public health crisis and environmental destruction, a commission has said.

The RSA commission, a group focused on pressing social challenges, who authored a report said that the UK’s food and farming system must be ‘radically’ transformed and become sustainable within 10 years.

It concluded that farmers must be enabled to shift from intensive farming to more organic and wildlife friendly production, raising livestock on grass and growing more nuts and pulses.

It also said a National Nature Service should be created to give opportunities for young people to work in the countryside and, for example, tackle the climate crisis by planting trees or restoring peatlands.

Produced by leaders from farming, supermarket and food supply businesses in addition to health and environment groups said: “Our own health and the health of the land are inextricably intertwined [but] in the last 70 years, this relationship has been broken.”

“Time is now running out. The actions that we take in the next 10 years are critical: to recover and regenerate nature and to restore health and wellbeing to both people and planet.”

The commission said most farmers thought they could make big changes in five to 10 years if they got the right backing.

It criticised decades of government policy aimed at making food cheaper, fuelling rising obesity and other health problems.

“The true cost of that is simply passed off elsewhere in society – in a degraded environment, spiralling ill health and impoverished high streets,” said the report.

It said schools, hospitals and prisons should buy more sustainably produced British food and also pointed out that that the UK had the third cheapest basket of food in the developed world, but also had the highest food poverty in Europe in terms of people being able to afford a healthy diet.

The commission also said agriculture produced more than 10% of the UK’s climate-heating gases and was the biggest destroyer of wildlife; the abundance of key species has fallen 67% since 1970 and 13% of species are now close to extinction.

To solve these crises, the commission said ‘agroecology’ practices must be supported – such as organic farming and agroforestry, where trees are combined with crops and livestock such as pigs or egg-laying hens.

The commission has also adapted for the UK a recently published scientific diet that is both nutritious and environmentally sustainable.

While it and other studies recommend large reductions in meat-eating, it said that there is a strong case to be made [in the UK] to support sustainable beef and lamb in the places where grass is the best thing to grow.

The commission said the government must develop a plan to put the countryside and the communities living there at the centre of the green economy.

“[Brexit] creates a once-in-50-years opportunity to change our food and farming system, but we need to act now: the climate emergency makes urgent, radical action on the environment essential,” said Sir Ian Cheshire, chair of the RSA commission and also a senior government adviser.

With Brexit uncertainty worrying farmers, the commission urged minister to stop delays on policy and trade decisions and commit to a future-proof ambition by January 2020.

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