October 2017 at Wark Farm
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So, there I was.A rather shy child, obsessed with animals, the natural world, keeping slugs as pets (amongst a huge menagerie of other beings) and filling my wellies with water in any burn I could get access to guddle in. When not messing around in the country I was consuming books on the topic and announcing, at the age of five, that I was going to be a farmer. Two things back then I would certainly not have predicted were (and William Hill would have given you a very good price on this one) 1.I would end up being a very experienced craft butcher and 2. I would study and maintain an enduring interest in aspects of economics. For the first, I was far too sensitive and indeed squeamish to cope with an animals transition from live to dead that in being a butcher must be faced, although the fact that my mother would find dead mice and rabbits tails in my trouser pockets may have shortened the odds on the first to an observant punter.
As to the economics, I loathed anything that involved numbers at school, well actually, I loathed school, but numbers made it even worse. They would induce immediate brain freeze, like the rabbit startled in the headlights (which is probably where the tails came from, though in my experience they don’t shed them when surprised like a lizard might). As I progressed through my later studies though, in a sneaky kind of way the numbers slipped in. I found a use for them in mammal population modelling, I even enjoyed building financial spreadsheets for long term forestry and commercial property appraisals. It wasn’t a full love in though, statistics still tormented me. That is what they are for.
My fascination was really awakened though by the interface between the natural world and how we value it, our use of it and the economics that try to explain it. To some extent we actually leave numbers behind and move into theories to explain complicated systems, which if we are lucky then reduce to some simple ideas. One example is that there is no such thing as cheap food. That’s not to say that there is no price differential on the shop shelves. Of course there is, but when we start to cast our economic net further and further from the shelf back down the food production chain, somewhere along the line we will start to come across the places where the difference in shelf prices can be explained. And in many of these places, the cost will not be a market cost with an immediate cash price tag. It will be a cost related to environmental damage; the environment pays that bill. It will be a cost to animal health and welfare; the compromised animal pays that bill. It will be a cost to exploited labour; the poorest pay that bill. It will be a cost to consumer health; individuals and the health care system pay that bill. In economics these are called market externalities. Various techniques exist to place monetary values on them, but until they are actually incorporated into the food chain by legislation or consumer preference they will be the hidden costs that allow there to be cheap food. No two economists agree on anything but studies are suggesting that these externalities are subsidising the cost of cheap food by trillions of dollars a year. There’s no space here to go far into solutions to equalising the cost of food production, but reclaiming food as a product not a commodity and shortening the food chain, both geographically and in processing, could go a long way.