The Illusion of Choice

Free Range Dairy | CowsI went to a Food Talk at Impact Hub Kings Cross recently, where they debated if too few businesses own our food production.

Carina from Feed Back Global who launched their campaign against fake farms this autumn, was one of the speakers. She raised some interesting points about how treating food as a commodity shapes our food cultures but not in a positive way. We look at rows and rows of food on supermarket shelves and think we have endless choice, but it’s an illusion. What’s on the shelves is often produced under different brand names but for the same company. Green and Black was bought up by Cadbury, which was bought up by Kraft, which also manufactures under the Nestle brand and includes Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

The hidden costs of foods manufactured as a commodity for profit by these corporations is also cause for concern. Profit over people and planet has been a growing concern and The Sustainable Food Trust has been able to ‘put a price on it’. For every £1 spent in the shops, the consumer spends another £1.

The most significant share of this total is made up by the damaging impacts of intensive production methods, including environmental pollution, soil degradation, biodiversity loss and some health impacts. These account for an extra 50p of every £1 spent on food. Food-related healthcare costs, linked to poor diets, account for an extra 37p. A high proportion of these extra costs are paid through general and local taxation, water charges, bottle water purchases, private healthcare insurance and lost income.

The second speaker was Geoff Tansey co author of The Food System, a guide . He put forward the idea that the real power is now with the supermarkets and as one grows bigger, the others strive to follow suit. Making it difficult to promote other food systems and controlling more and more of our food production and distribution into smaller group.  An example of this was selling milk as a loss leader i.e. 4 pints for a £1 to attract shoppers into their stores over their rivals and the impact this had on smaller dairy farmers.

We only have to look at food waste plus the move towards intensive, factory farming to see how saturated the market is. When food is cheap, you have to sell a lot more of it to make your profits for you and your shareholders. So, you look at ways to streamline your overheads, whilst ramping up production. Resulting in fewer well paid jobs, farmers squeezed on price and concentrating the making and production of food in fewer and fewer hands.

Before Neil and I set up Free Range Dairy Network, free range milk didn’t exist. We had farmers who wanted to join us and produce the milk to the grazing system we wanted to preserve. We had people who wanted to buy the milk, as it paid a fair price to farmers and it wasn’t from factory farms. But the barrier at first was getting the milk collected, segregated and processed separately. The government has allowed milk production to become consolidated into fewer but larger businesses, making it hard for new entrants to compete. We are extremely grateful to Dales Dairies in Yorkshire and Cotteswold Dairy in Gloucestershire, for giving us the chance to process free range milk under the Pasture Promise label and start a grassroots milk movement.

Our current mantra in the UK and developed world is let the market decide, but the market will always decide to make as much money as possible for the corporations and shareholders. When we factor in that some of these will also be registered in tax havens and pay little tax, it becomes clear that our current food system that produces food for profit with little thought to the negative impact on people or planet is making us sick.

So, what does the future hold for the future of food? You think you have choice but it’s an illusion if all you’re doing is choosing from the same company! As consumers we still have power in who gets our money, so information and real choice is key to shaping the food systems we need.

The final point of the debate, which I think demonstrates why we need a new food system, is that this economic system isn’t natural, but is a legacy that has been shaped around conditions that no longer exist. We are no longer an Empire, with Brexit, we will no longer be part of the EU, we don’t have a stable climate and a small population and we are facing huge changes to our climate. An important question to ask ourselves as resources become scarcer and the population grows, is when food really is life and death, should it be in the hands of a few corporations and out of the hands of the people?

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