Cheap and easy food? Think about the true cost
Easyjet founder Stelios Haji-Iannou’s new easyFoodstore will most likely be lauded by the government.
But no society on earth can ultimately afford food this cheap
There is something disconcerting about the sight of the easyJet founder, Sir Stelios Haji-Iannou, at the launch of his latest business venture this week, easyFoodstore: a discount food store in Park Royal in London, selling products for 25p each. The cheery entrepreneur stands grinning beneath an impossible-to-miss placard proclaiming the slogan: “No expensive brands. Just food honestly priced.” Behind him, stacked up on cheerless shelving such as you’d see in the most basic cash and carry, stand boxes of cola, salt and vinegar snacks, long-life milk and more of that ilk.
This enterprise is in a different league from the “no frills’” food shopping that is now such a familiar feature of our retail scene. Admittedly, these 25p deals are just introductory offers, but Haji-Iannou is clearly establishing a new low (or high, if you see the quest for ever cheaper food as an unquestionably desirable social mission) in the budget food world. Supermarkets look out, your competitors are no longer the German discounters and pound shops – you’re under attack from even lower prices as well.
The line-up of food in the picture, with its echoes of the food bank, elevates utilitarianism and cheerlessness to an art form. But this is just the logical extension of the resigned miserabilism that dominates the prevailing narrative on food poverty. Beggars can’t be choosers. If you’re broke, you must rejoice at food this cheap, even if it’s so heavily processed that anyone better advised avoids it.
It’s not quite clear yet whether Haji-Iannou is motivated by compassion – he has previously run food charity initiatives in Greece and Cyprus – or driven by a more commercial motivation, but either way, his initiative will doubtless be met by clucking approval from government, big farming and “realist” commentators who would prefer that we all ate, for instance, factory-farmed chicken every day, rather than a better-raised bird once a month.
For decades now, any challenge to the contention that the best way to deal with food poverty is to upscale production and drive down prices has been dismissed as selfish, Marie Antoinette-style heresy coming from an affluent elite that has never struggled to put food on the household plate. Get real, we’re told. Only a full-blown industrial food model predicated on large volumes and low prices can feed a booming world population.
But by going along with this pseudo-democratic, apparently inclusive propaganda, we’ve aided and abetted a food system that wrecks the environment, treats animals inhumanely, makes serfs of workers, undermines the genuine artisan, seriously threatens our nation’s food security, diverts money from local businesses to distant shareholders’ dividends and cooks up public health problems. And all the while it is spawning a never-ending stream of ever more innovative, painstakingly engineered products that just happen to have the effect of making us fat and ill. This bankrupt paradigm is failing hopelessly but it supports and justifies the activities of the real parasites on our food system: the corporate food producers who so profitably churn out huge quantities of bad quality, nutritionally compromised food and drink at unprecedentedly low prices.
Haji-Ioannou brags that the products in his new store are “honestly priced”, and doubtless they are, within the narrow frame of reference usually applied to discussions of “value” and pick-up price. But surely no society on earth can ultimately afford food this cheap? If we factor in the hidden costs to society, from grave public health issues to climate change, it most certainly doesn’t constitute a bargain.
A newer fresher way of thinking about the price of food, true cost accounting, increasingly resonates around the world among groups highlighting the unpalatable side effects of our supposedly “efficient”, industrialised food system. This is a new metric that examines the cost of factors that were previously ignored and makes visible the long-term damage to our planet and our health that we pay for each time we opt for unfeasibly cheap food. Having quantified the damage, the idea is that we can then develop policy instruments (both carrots and sticks) to ensure that in future, the real cost of industrial food production is explicit, and so encourage a better system that rewards food producers who deliver much more positive environmental and public health outcomes.
True cost accounting can’t be applied soon enough, but in the meantime, we must make a mental leap. Poverty is a money problem, not a food problem. We cannot hope to cure it by means of artificially “cheap”, nutritionally impoverished, lowest common denominator food. It is obvious where this thinking is taking us already: towards a national diet of tinned baked beans, custard creams and crisps, washed down with sugary tea and fizzy drinks. This is just not acceptable. As George Orwell put it: “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.”
• Joanna Blythman is the author of Swallow This, published by Fourth Estate