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Environment & ethics   |   Health

Is it time to introduce a ‘Feeding Tariff’?

While we sit at home and think about what we will eat at Christmas, maybe pondering what January 1st will bring for our food security, as a reader of Wicked Leeks it is likely that you already carefully consider your food choices. 

Dig a little deeper and apart from the price paid, depending on source, there may be other costs, particularly for food products that are over reliant on fossil fuels, cheap labour, are ultra-processed, or over packaged. 

It’s easy to say that the average basket of food needs to be better quality and more expensive to ensure that farming practices are regenerative, fair to workers and support human health. It is trickier to put into practice in a time of rising poverty. No one disputes that cheap food helps people on a low income, but surely, we can do better than poor-quality food imports resulting from trade deals?  Everyone needs safe food and good nutrition, in the same way that you need the same quality of fuel whether you drive a Kia or a Bentley.

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Unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to health than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined. Most people want to eat well, but those experiencing poverty can find themselves forced to swap nutritious foods for those that deliver more calories per pound spent. A recent survey asked food bank users which foods they most valued. 

Fresh food (of any kind) came first, followed by vegetables and fruit specifically. At Food in Community, where I volunteer, compared with 2019 we delivered 100 per cent more fresh food boxes to disadvantaged households, containing food donated by Riverford. The impact of good produce on our clients at a difficult point in their lives is remarkable. 

Is there a way to reconcile three objectives of sustainability (environmental and economic for producers), affordability of nutritious food and food security? Chris Blake in a Food, Farming and Countryside Commission report, suggests applying lessons from the UK energy market. 

The amount of renewable electricity generated increased from six to 37 per cent over ten years, achieved using renewable energy production feed-in tariff subsidies, funded with a consumer electricity consumption levy. It balanced three objectives: low carbon, low cost and security of supply.

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Could we apply the successful policies in the renewable energy sector to farming and food?

A consumer levy on unsustainably produced food items would price in these externalities in full and a “feeding tariff” would help producers fund investment in regenerative food production. 

Extra taxes on sugary drinks led  to reductions in the consumption of taxed drinks, suggesting it could work. It also presents an opportunity to subsidise healthy sustainably produced staples. Imagine the impact on the nation’s health if sustainable produce was affordable to all.  

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Kate Carfrae

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Kate Carfrae volunteers at Devon based Food in Community, which since 2012 has used sustainably produced surplus food from Riverford as a catalyst for strengthening communities, tackling poverty and social isolation. Kate’s background is in children’s mental health and she is passionate about sustainable food, health and social justice.

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The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity losses will be the defining stories of our future, but it is not too late to change direction. 

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