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