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The real cost of cheap food

burger and chipsMost people seems to want cheaper and cheaper food. Supermarkets constantly have price wars with their competitors to try and encourage people into their stores. But cheap food has hidden costs which affect people, the environment and the welfare of animals. For example, pesticides may kill pests but they can also seriously pollute water supplies under the ground and effect drinking water. This water has to be cleaned up before it can be used. That's expensive to do and should be paid for as part of the cost of 'cheap' food. But it isn't and so people have to pay higher prices for their water supplies - or drink polluted water.farm land

Then there are factory farms. Apart from the cruelty to animals, the pollution from factory farms affects streams, rivers and even the sea and coral reefs.

Finally, there's the problem of subsidy. This is where governments, usually in rich developed countries, pay money to farmers to grow crops. This makes food falsely cheap. It can then be sold cheaply in other parts of the world which drives farmers in poorer countries out of business as they do not receive similar subsidies for their work.

Food miles

Importing food results in an increase in food miles. This is the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is eaten; the distance between field and plate. Before imported food reaches us it has to travel great distances by air, sea, rail and road. This transportation involves pollution and in particular the release of carbon dioxide, the main gas responsible for global warming. 

The growth of supermarkets has caused a drastic rise in food miles. A pint of milk or a crop of potatoes can be transported many miles to be packaged at a central depot and then sent many miles back to be sold near where they were produced in the first place.

Also, because of the way the food processing industry works, ingredients travel around the country from factory to factory, before they make their way to the shops. Then there’s imported produce. The amount of food being flown into the UK doubled in the 1990s and is predicted to rise further each year.

Another reason for rising food miles are cheaper labour costs in other countries. For example, some British fish is now sent to China – where the cost of employing people is much lower – for processing, then sent back to the UK to be sold.

It's difficult to be sure how far our food has travelled before it reaches our plates. A food’s country of origin may be on the label but it’s generally impossible to tell how far the food has travelled and by what means. The means of transport - as well as the distance - is important. For example, a long journey by boat has less environmental impact than a shorter one by road.

Consumers are also directly responsible for increased food miles. We now travel further for our shopping and use the car more often to do it.


The last 50 years have seen major changes in the way that people buy their food. 50 years ago most people bought their food from local markets or specialist high street shops.

Today, £76 billion is spent on groceries, and more than 80% goes to supermarkets – these are huge corporations: Asda Walmart is now the world’s largest company by turnover, while Tesco takes £1 in every £3 spent on food in the UK. This change in food retailing makes the apparent increase in choice problematic as to how it impacts on producers, consumers and the local and global environment.