Why cheap groceries will hurt us all in the long run – DW (English)

Posted: September 20, 2020 at 10:52 pm

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Roughly 3 ($3.50) for half a kilo of meat, 2 for 10eggs and less than a euro for a liter of milk international tourists often wonder about the cheap prices in German supermarkets. How can animal products cost so little?

It'sbecause the true cost of foodishidden, researchers from the University of Augsburg and the University of Greifswald have found. The real price tag would be much higher if the social and ecological impact of production were considered,saidAmelieMichalke,a co-author of their report who has been researching external food prices and the true costof food for the past four years.

Minced meatwouldcostabout three times as much, and the price for milk and goudacheese wouldalmost doubleifenvironmental costswereadded, the researchers calculated.

Michalke and her colleagueslooked atfour different indicators: land-use change, greenhouse gasemissions, reactive nitrogenand theproduction'senergy demand.Other indicators like the use of pesticides and antibiotics weren't consideredfor thisparticular study.

"The biggest difference that we were able to see between the productswasbetween plant-based and animal-based products, because the animal-based value chains are way more complicated and way longer,"Michalkesaid. "And the highest costs are, of course, for meat products."

Prices for fruit and vegetablesas well as organic producewould not be affected as much, but even they become considerably more pricey: bananas go up 19% (organic 9%), tomatoes and potatoes 12% (organic 5% and 6% respectively) and apples 8% (organic 4%).

The price for fruit and vegetables would not increase that much, the researchers found

Earlier this year,GermanAgricultureMinister JuliaKlcknerblamed discounter supermarkets for their"dumping prices,"especially when it comes to meat. She also criticized thedouble standards ofcustomers,who are often not willing to pay fair prices for their groceries.

Now one of Germany's discounters, Penny, part oftheRewesupermarketgroup,has asked the researchers to calculate the true cost of eight of theirproducts. Customersshopping at one of their stores in the Berlin district of Spandau are shown the true cost of these products next to thestore'sretail price.

And the result may well be a shock to many of them.The price of meat risesthe most, with conventionally farmed products going up 173% and even organic ones more than doubling their cost. Milk also greatly goes upin price, with a 122% rise when coming from a normal dairy and a69% increase when from an organic source.

Researcher Michalke said the idea behind the experiment is to show that organic produce is actually cheaper in the long run than conventional farming.

"Consumerswouldbe incentivized to buy these products. And thenproducers would also be incentivized to maybe switch theiragricultural practices," she said.

However, only eight out of roughly 3,500 products available at the supermarket currently carry that true cost price tag.

"If we realize the experiment is working, for example because people start buying organic produce more, then as a next step we would have the true costs of more products calculated and roll out the experiment in more branches to increase visibility," Penny spokesperson AndreasKrmertold DW.

Researchers calculated milk prices would increase by 122%, gouda cheese by 88% and mozzarella by 52%

"I believe the trend is that even discount customers want to go shopping with a good conscience and want to know where their food is coming from, how it was produced and whether it harms the environment,"he said.

He alsopointed outthe goalwas not to suddenly raise prices and sell products based on their real costs."We just want to sensitize our customers. Food has to remain affordable for everyone, so of course we have to think about how we can support people who do not have much leeway in their budget,"Krmersaid.

He believes it's a long way until the true cost of food will be implemented.

Michalkebelievesa CO2 taxwouldhelp allocate costs to make all the stakeholders along the value chainpayup and not just the customers.

However, shebelieves educating people is an important first step.

"People do have to understand that it is not normal to have these cheap prices for food before we can shift the dynamics and shift the system,"she said.

'It is quite shocking how high the external price factors are for some animal products,' said researcher Michalke

At the grocery store, some customers have welcomed the initiative.

MonikaLanzke said she knew food would be a bit more expensive if we cared for our climate, but said she wasn't aware of how huge the difference would be."But I'd be happy to pay more if this benefits our environment."

Andrea Leo believes if food were to get more expensive in the future, people may also be less wasteful and buy more consciously."I come from a large family that didn't have a big budget for food and in thosetimesthere weren't all these cheap offers, so we just had meat and animal products on the weekend and that was totally fine,"she said.

Others, likeIngoJucht, who came to Penny to buy some groceries with his daughter, are worried when they see how much the prices would increase and don't want to change their shopping behavior.

"I'm a little shocked,because the costs for my shopping would basically triple and that is not nice for an average person. I like the fact that groceries are so cheap in Germany, and I would continue buying the cheaper product if I have the choice,"he said.

Compared to other Europeancountries, Germany's prices are cheaper because of fierce competition between large retailers.

"We have a comparatively high concentration of supermarkets on the German market and a merciless competition between large retailers, which leadsto prices being very low. This competition is further fueled by discounters, where prices play a huge role, which then bringsprice levels down across the country,"Krmersaid.

Headmittedthat discount supermarkets are part of the problem,but he also believes they can be part of the solution if they give customers more information and alternatives.

"We don't value food as much as other countries just because it has always been socheapor it has grown to be so cheap,"Michalkesaid.

Apart from current research in the Netherlands that's looking into nitrogen emissions from pork production, there isn't a single country in the world that currently factors in ecological and social impacts of food production, according to Michalke. "And that's a conversation that we shouldbehavingacross the world."

While scientists don't yet know exactly how COVID-19 originated, recent pandemic virus threats such as swine flu and bird flu almost certainly evolved at pig and chicken factory farms. With a link already established between intensive animal agriculture and an increased pandemic risk, it might be the moment to rethink factory farming at its current scale.

The pandemic has also cast a light on the poor conditions in the meat processing industry. Germany has seen several coronavirus outbreaks among meat factory employees, and has even put two districts in western Germany in quarantine after more than 1,550 workers at the Tnnies slaughterhouse were infected with the disease. Calls are growing for better regulations throughout the meat branch.

Experts believe the coronavirus likely came from wildlife sold at a wet market in Wuhan, China. In the wake of the pandemic, China clamped down on the wildlife trade, shutting down almost 20,000 wildlife farms. Some Chinese provinces are now offering government support to help wildlife farmers transition away from the practice, and switch to growing crops or raising pigs or chickens instead.

The pandemic has impacted our food supply chain. An industry evolved to feed a globalized world has been scaled back to the local level in some cases. From reduced access to animal fodder to shortages of labor, farmers are having to consider how to adapt to a new and uncertain future.

Forced to spend more time at home, increasing numbers of people have been trying their hand at growing their own food. This could be a positive development in the long run. With more than two-thirds of the world's population projected to live in cities by 2050, urban farming will become more crucial - and it requires less fossil fuel for transport and less land than conventional agriculture.

With our planet's population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, there's no escaping the fact that food production around the world needs to increase. While opening up more land was once seen as an obvious solution to this problem, a stronger focus on urban farming and concerns over the consequences of encroaching into nature could spark a rethink of how we use land.

As awareness of the potential health costs of the meat market grows, China has witnessed an increasing interest in plant-based products. The West has already experienced a trend towards plant-based diets over the past few years, and that is likely to continue as consumers become more concerned over the origins of meat products.

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to impact developing countries heavily particularly in terms of food security. The UN has already warned of famine "of biblical proportions" as resources become scarcer. Alongside immediate aid, mitigating widespread famine in the long-term will require better land protection, more diversified crops and more support for smallholder farmers who are most at risk.

Author: Ineke Mules

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Why cheap groceries will hurt us all in the long run - DW (English)

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