The true cost of the cheap potato

28 June 2012 | Article

Over the last decades, the EU Common Agricultural Policy achieved its goals of producing sufficient amounts of food in low prices. This came at a cost, as it helped create an unjust production/consumption model, resulting into the huge loss of biodiversity, over-production and mistreatment of animals.

These problems exceed national borders, as the jigsaw of industrial agriculture in the way it was encouraged by agrarian policy in the last 50 years is extremely complex. And I am wondering, what future do we dream for Europe when:

  • Every year, 90 million tons of food are wasted in the 27 EU member-states. This equals to about 179 kg per person.
  • 42 million Europeans live under conditions of severe deprivation, while 250 million are overweight.
  • In about just one century, 75% of plant genetic diversity is lost, while 30% of animal breeds are under the threat of extinction. We are losing about 6 animal breeds every month.
  • Only in the last years, the land used for soya production in Brazil for the European market equals to 19,500 sq. km of deforested tropical rainforest. This is about 2/3 the size of Holland.
  • Soils contain 25% of the Earth’s biodiversity. Bad soil management costs more than a trillion Euro per year, globally.
  • Butterflies in European pastures are reduced by 70% since 1990. Between 1980 and 2008, farm bird populations were reduced to about the half.
  • At least 14 member-states and 100 million EU citizens are facing severe water shortages. Agricultural production uses 24% of Europe’s water resources, with this percentage reaching 80% in the European south.
  • 3.3 cubic meters of water are required to produce 1 kg of eggs; 1.3 cubic meters for the production of 1 kg of wheat; and 15.5 cubic meters for the production of 1 kg of beef.
  • In 2011, every European consumed 85.7 kg of meat. This is double from the global average.
  • Large scale animal production is responsible for 85% of total agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases in Europe.
  • The annual cost of decontamination of water bodies from agricultural chemicals ranges between 522 and 847 billion Euro.
  • In the UK, health problems related to pesticides cost 206 million Euro annually.
  • Only 7% of European farmers are below the age of 35.
  • The EU will spend for its CAP 371.72 billion Euro between 2014-2020. This is more than 50 billion every year and equals to 37% of total EU budget.

Cheap food may spare us some money now. But with one or another way, the money required for agricultural subsidies and for balancing the negative consequences of this production model must be paid at some point.

By Pavlos Georgiadis