Letter: Afford­able food and cli­mate sta­bil­ity is a tough bal­ance to strike

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As Pro­fessor Dieter Helm has observed, what is unsus­tain­able can­not be sus­tained. Your report of the recent Food Sys­tem Eco­nom­ics Com­mis­sion paper is the most recent of numer­ous pub­lic­a­tions, includ­ing Helm’s books and the UK’s national food strategy, that con­clude that food con­sump­tion pat­terns are unsus­tain­able on health and health cost grounds, and our food pro­duc­tion sys­tems are unsus­tain­able on biod­iversity and cli­mate grounds (Report, FT.com, Janu­ary 29).

At the same time we see heav­ily sub­sid­ised farm­ers block­ing high­ways across Europe and res­ist­ing envir­on­mental reg­u­la­tion because they struggle to run eco­nom­ic­ally sus­tain­able busi­nesses given their weak pos­i­tion in the food sup­ply chain. Indeed, the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment should be migh­tily relieved that their farm­ers have to date not shown the mil­it­ancy of their con­tin­ental neigh­bours. UK farm­ers have had their Com­mon Agri­cul­tural Policy basic pay­ment sub­sidies halved since Brexit and, rightly, are told that the only endur­ing “pub­lic” pay­ments they will receive are for the sup­ply of pub­lic, mostly envir­on­mental, goods.

All coun­tries are strug­gling to find the right bal­ance of envir­on­mental and cli­mate reg­u­la­tion, reg­u­la­tion of the food industry, and pub­lic pay­ments to farm­ers which can square the chal­lenges of afford­able food for the poorest in soci­ety, healthy diets, eco­lo­gical and cli­mate sta­bil­ity and prof­it­able farm­ing.

The FSEC sug­ges­tion that food prices should rise 30 per cent may well be a logical step, but is a hard sell polit­ic­ally. Pop­u­lism does not accept the cost implic­a­tions of the energy trans­ition, so adding the costs of the food trans­ition seems a step too far.

The sad con­clu­sion is that we will con­tinue to suf­fer the costs of inac­tion — which, unfor­tu­nately, will fall hard­est on the poorest coun­tries and com­munit­ies.

Allan Buck­well
Emer­itus Pro­fessor of Agri­cul­tural Eco­nom­ics, Imper­ial Col­lege Lon­don, Can­ter­bury, Kent, UK

This post was originally published on Financial Times

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