The Real Cost of Food

We all know how much food costs. There’s that unavoidable moment at the supermarket checkout, as item after item travels along the rubberised route from trolley to scanner, beeping its cheery way onto the final tally, out of our bank accounts and into our environmentally-friendly, endlessly reusable bags.

The price of food itself has become big business. Television programmes will teach you how to shop better and for less, while the supermarkets themselves are busily spending thousands on adverts extolling their desire to save us money – while buoying their own profits at the expense of their rivals, naturally.

It’s a powerful set of messages, and it works. Not only can just about anyone who shops regularly instantly reel off the prices of their five favourite purchases without pausing for thought, more than ever we’ve all become conditioned to thinking about the pennies. In our post-credit crunch world, we know the cost of food – right? Wrong! We might know the price, but the truth is that most of us haven’t a clue about the real cost of what we put on our plates.

As you might expect in the “globalised” economy, it’s a complex issue and many factors contribute. Here’s a quick look at just two of the most important ones to convince you that the way your community eats can make just as big a contribution to your collective carbon footprint and energy saving successes as swapping light-bulbs and turning down your thermostats.

Food Miles

Let’s start with a familiar one – food miles. Considering the amount of fuel used to transport our food is a widely understood idea, but some of numbers involved are shocking.

According to studies at the Centre for Alternative Technology, for instance, the distance that our food travels from producer to plate has increased by over 50 per cent over the last ten years alone. These journeys can be complicated, multi-stage affairs, so it’s definitely not just a case of how far it’s transported from a central depot to the individual supermarket branch – some items are being brought hundreds if not thousands of miles to be packed before sale. In the UK alone, estimates put the cost of all these food miles – which have more than doubled since 1975 – at £9 billion every year, of which more than half is due to the road congestion it causes.

Food represents more than a quarter of all the miles travelled by road freight on British roads – and imports account for 95 per cent of the fruit we eat and around half of the vegetables. That’s before any of us have got into our cars and driven the estimated 200 miles or so that each of us, on average, drives annually to do our food shopping. Even organic foods can suffer – according to Government statistics a typical basket containing 26 imported organic food items may represent enough food miles to travel round the world – six times over! If you’re buying organic, the “buy local” message clearly still applies.


The amount of water required for food production is staggering – and the long term consequences of this are potentially enormous. Around a half of the world’s food supply comes from the one-fifth of the cultivated land around the globe that is irrigated and keeping up with that level of thirst makes huge demands on available resources. In some parts of Europe alone, irrigation accounts for 80 per cent of total water usage, while experts at the International Water Management Institute recently warned that Asia will suffer major food shortages within 40 years unless the continent’s approach to agricultural water use changes.

With studies indicating that less than half the irrigation water used globally actually reaches its intended target, the rest being lost through evaporation or as runoff, in a world where nearly a billion people – one in six of the population – have no regular access to a clean supply to drink, the water cost of food is already very high. With some forecasts suggesting that half of the planet’s inhabitants will be living in an area of significant water stress within 20 years, it’s not going to get any cheaper.

Energy Saving Opportunities

It has been calculated that the production and transport of food adds around one-and-a-half tonnes to every Briton’s carbon footprint – and in money terms, with petrol the price it is, those typical 200 miles of food journeys don’t come cheap either. The cost of food may be high, environmentally as much as economically, but the good news is that it’s one area where energy savings can be made very successfully, and often without too much effort.

Avoid “ready meals” or heavily processed foods, for instance, and your carbon debt drops by 200kg a year, while setting up a community composting scheme could help cut the same amount again for every household that participates. Avoiding air-freighted imports and out-of-season produce will certainly reduce food miles, while buying locally and even switching to delivery services – especially if a number of you coordinate your delivery times – can also help your neighbourhood save energy and cut the environmental cost of food.

Perhaps the best project of all, however, is to try a spot of grow-your-own. Whether you set up community allotments, or simply opt for collaborative growing between individual households on a small scale, you could soon be producing at least a little of what you eat for yourself – and there’s no better way to see the real value of food. Just remember that water butt!