ARTICLE: The illusion of cheap food under commodified agriculture

In this critique of the modern food system, Gunnar Rundgren argues that the commercialisation of farming has led us to view land, water and nature as private property and the life of the land, our symbionts, as commodities. It has given rise to the illusion of cheap food by externalising many of the attendant costs such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the pollution of our soil and water. The transition to a regenerative food system will only be possible when we begin viewing the food system as a social, ecological and economic system.

EVEN as hundreds of millions go hungry, food has a low price tag attached to it in the global market. This is because we have externalised many of the costs of producing and consuming it. We let someone else – nature, other people, future generations, taxpayers – foot the bill for climate change, for loss of biodiversity, for eutrophication, for nitrates and pesticides in our groundwater or even for losing the water or the soil altogether. It has become painfully clear that we can no longer afford cheap food.

An unsustainable system

Cheap food allows a growing proportion of the global population to eat meat, fresh vegetables and fruits all year round, something most people could only dream of a few generations back – and something many people in the world can still only dream of. People live longer, are taller and are generally healthier than in the agrarian societies of the 18th and 19th centuries. But the current food system has also produced obesity, allergies and other diseases, and destroyed the environment and devastated farming communities.

Our whole food system contributes at least a third of manmade total greenhouse gas emissions. The extraction of water for irrigation exceeds the regeneration of water sources in many parts of the world. Pesticides cause a major loss of biodiversity and hundreds of thousands of direct deaths among farmers and farm workers. Nobody really knows how they affect other aspects of our health. The European Nitrogen Assessment concluded that farmers using nitrogen fertilisers create costs for society at large that are on par with the economic benefits for them.1 European chickens or Chinese pigs are, to a very large extent, fed soy protein from Latin America, much of it from the Cerrado, the Amazon or the Pampa, landscapes which are razed and raped by agribusiness. The extinction of species and the greenhouse gas emissions caused by this are also not included in the price of chicken breast or pulled pork.

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