Farming polluters should pay, conference hears

Farmers, processors and retailers need to be held financially accountable for the impact of intensive production on environmental and public health, a conference on sustainable farming has been told.

Farming subsidies, and rewards for higher productivity, are simply masking these “hidden costs”, according to an international delegation of scientists and farmers in London.

If food systems are to be sustainable then the true cost to human health and the environment should be factored in – the polluter must pay, speakers argued at the True-Cost Accounting in Food and Farming conference on 5 December.

Essex University’s Prof Jules Pretty estimated the cost of water contamination by pesticides, soil erosion, organic carbon losses and greenhouse gas to be £2.4bn a year.

“It is hard to compete against perverse subsidy regimes and the economic `invisibility’ of the current system.”
Prince Charles

This cost to the environment is higher than the UK net farm income, he pointed out. And on social impact, Prof Tim Lang cited food as a contributory factor to more than half the leading risk factors of diseases accounting for 58.8m deaths a year. He said that between 2010 and 2030 diabetes is estimated to cost 48% of global GDP yet the cost to prevent them is small in comparison. More fruit and vegetable production and less meat and dairy would improve public health dramatically, he concluded.

The Prince of Wales spoke at the conference via a video address which appealed for new research on a different approach to farming that is more sustainable and profitable. “We have to find ways to reward producers for a more ecological sound approach,” said Prince Charles. “It is hard to compete against perverse subsidy regimes and the economic `invisibility’ of the current system.”

Producing enough food for an increasing world population without doing irreparable damage to the environment and human health is the biggest challenge the world faces – and made even more challenging by climate change, he said.

The financial odds for food production seem stacked against the polluter pays principle, but could it be used to drive business as it has done so effectively with the landfill tax, where innovations in recycling and jobs have been created, he argued.

Patrick Holden, chief executive of conference organiser Sustainable Food Trust said that the profitability of current intensive farming simply hid the impact it had on soils, water, nature and even human health.

Yet sustainable farming methods, such as organic, are the most financially disadvantaged, Mr Holden argued.

“The price of food is everyone’s concern, but at present, our failure to account for the damaging consequences of an industrialised food system creates a distorted price environment where the polluter doesn’t pay,” he said.

Mr Holden called for urgent change to create a fairer economic environment, redirecting support to encourage resilient and food-secure systems of production.

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