Vote with your wallets. So goes the saying that concludes so many ethically-minded opinion pieces and calls to action.
There are plenty of reasons to do so, as the western world wakes up to the value of sustainable supply chains in food, clothing, beauty and beyond. But there is also a huge gap in this approach that rather than being mentioned just in passing, should arguably be central to the debate.
Since the 2008 financial crash, average weekly wages have stagnated, failing to return to pre-crash levels despite the economy returning to growth. 14 million people (22 per cent of the population) live on incomes below the poverty line, while one in 14 adults in the UK have had to use a food bank.
Clearly, while ethical buying might be high on the agenda for some, for others it is far from a priority. So how can sustainable food, whether that’s organic or just locally sourced, ever become affordable, and therefore mainstream, enough to genuinely transform the food system?
Speaking at the Food Matters Live conference at the end of last year, food writer and activist Jack Monroe, said: “I think a sustainable diet means different things to different people. My concern with these broad-brush definitions is a lot of people don’t have these choices. I think we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t marginalise a whole segment of society.”
For Monroe, whose latest cook book collected her best recipes using tinned food with the proceeds going to food banks, it must come down to price. “I think that incentive and subsidy is a much more effective strategy than taxation. The sugar tax, for example, all it does is penalise those who are taking quick fixes,” she says. “Subsidising plant-based suppliers and encouraging innovation would be a much better use of government power.”
Jonathan Pauling is the chief executive of food charity Alexandra Rose, whose so-called ‘Rose’ vouchers can be swapped for fresh fruit and veg at local markets. The scheme is run in partnership with local market traders and councils, and aimed at families who cannot afford fresh produce. He says: “I really see the dynamics of cost as a real barrier to sustainable food. Currently in the UK, we know that families are struggling to access not only healthy food, but any food at all.”
A new report by the Food Foundation found that low income families would currently have to spend 74 per cent of their disposable income on food to meet the government’s recommended Eat Well diet. The think tank also worked out that calories from unhealthy food are three times cheaper than those from healthy foods. But Pauling says he doesn’t think simply lowering prices is the answer, and instead accessibility and a financial incentive, such as a voucher to spend locally, are the best ways of encouraging healthy diets.
Alexandra Rose focuses on fruit and veg intake as the “baseline indicator” of a healthy diet that is often missing from low income areas. But Pauling believes a similar model could also be used to incentivise a sustainable, as well as healthy, food system. In the US, people redeeming similar government food vouchers get double the value if they spend them at a local farmers’ market, which in turn supports local sustainable farming businesses.
“You can see how the government could get behind this,” says Pauling. “The work they’ve done in the US is very valuable. It started out in farmers’ markets but it’s expanded into convenience stores and now supermarkets.
“It is pump priming the type of food system that we eventually want. We don’t want the food system to be propped up by tax credits, which already top up the wages of many. But why not try a different type of subsidy, or ‘sticking plaster’, that supports people’s access to healthy and sustainable food and the type of food economy we really need.”
The image of a ‘sticking plaster’ does a good job of describing what is a short-term solution to the cost of sustainable food, according to Dan Crossley, executive director of sustainable food think tank Food Ethics Council, who says: “I don’t think that price is the biggest barrier, I’d say it’s income. In this consumerist world, we’re told everything is about price.”
Both Pauling and Crossley point to things like a real living wage, getting people back into work, and unfreezing benefits, as wider structural and political solutions that could help people afford and choose ethical food.
Calculating ‘true cost’ of food is another idea – pricing food according to its impact on the environment and use of resources. “The starting point for me, rather than making things cheaper, is if you incorporate the true cost of food then some prices would go up, and sustainable products would be relatively cheaper,” says Crossley, adding: “The price of organic is probably closer to the true cost of food.”
As a public letter highlighted this week, simply redistributing leftover food to those in need falls far short of tackling the UK’s major inequality problem. “It’s really important that we don’t create a two or three tier system so it’s not a case of giving leftover food to left behind people,” says Crossley, who believes the solution must aim high. “From a dignity perspective, I much prefer a universal approach, so there isn’t that embarrassment or shame.”
If sustainable food is to have any hope of creating a better food system, with less impact on the environment, a strong rural economy and an accessible, healthy food culture, it’s vital that the issues of affordability and inequality remains central to the debate.