Integrated Planning and Management of Land ResourcesFAOCSDUNEP
World Summit on Sustainable Development, South Africa 2002

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Message 53

Subject: Message 53 - Intervention by Michael Appleby Date: Fri, 23 Mar 2001 18:16:23 +0100 From: RIO10-Moderator To: "'RIO10-L@mailserv.fao.org'" Food prices I have kept quiet until now because my experience is largely limited to Europe, but there is one vital issue that has hardly been mentioned that I believe needs emphasizing: that of food prices. Ryan Curtis did refer to this in Message 27: 'If we are not willing to pay sensible prices for good quality food, a price that allows a decent standard of living, and a decent quality of life, for those whose occupation is food production - then we will end up with unsustainable agriculture by default.' I suggest that an important answer to Question 3 is: pressure for cheap food. There is a widespread assumption that cheaper food for consumers is unequivocally desirable. Indeed, the proportion of income that people in 'developed countries' spend on food has declined for many years, and this decline is generally regarded as beneficial. However, it can also be argued that pressure for cheap food production has been a major factor in many negative developments: unreliable farm incomes, pressures on small-scale producers, reduced food security, concerns over food safety, loss of competitiveness for third-world producers, problems for animal welfare and environmental damage. Cheap food involves other 'prices' that are not reflected in the monetary cost. Pressure for cheap food is sometimes attributed to the consumers themselves, but it would be more accurate to say that in recent years it primarily results from competition between producers. There is a small proportion of consumers in 'developed countries' who would have genuine difficulty in paying more for food, but this is insufficient argument for providing cheap food for everyone: such people could be supported in other ways. Most people could readily pay more for food. Indeed, most already pay more than necessary, some by buying 'free range' products and more by buying convenience foods. My perspective is that pressure for cheap food was understandable and largely beneficial for many years after World War II, but that it had by then developed its own momentum and has now over-run. The assumption is betrayed by constant references to 'improved growth rates', 'improved milk production' and so on. Any benefit to the farmer is only very short term, as paring of profit margins and competition between producers constantly re-adjusts the status quo. At a recent conference a speaker said that we may soon reach the point at which a hen lays 365 eggs in a year, and that 'After that, we must go on improving food conversion efficiency'. My response is: Why? Most of us do not NEED cheaper eggs, and the effects on the hen, the environment and so on are increasingly dire. Ryan Curtis also says: 'Citizens of affluent countries will never willingly give up their 'luxuries' in order that citizens of other countries can satisfy their basic needs for survival. The governments of affluent countries will never willingly carry out any actions which will realistically infringe upon the standard of living of the voting population of their respective countries.' Well maybe, but 'standard of living' is often conceived too narrowly. In this case, people often equate standard of living with COST of living. On the contrary, people's standard of living is affected not just by the cost of their food, but also by their assurance that it is good for them and that its production does not damage animals, environment, other people and so on. So my answer to Question 4 is: Explore ways in society and government that we can return to what Curtis calls 'sensible prices for good quality food'. Dr. Michael C. Appleby, Director of Postgraduate Studies in Agriculture and Resource Economics Institute of Ecology and Resource Management University of Edinburgh

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