Last month, Volkert Engelsman, managing director of Dutch organics specialist Eosta, spoke at the National Food Summit in The Hague, Netherlands, in the presence of the Dutch ministers of environment, health, economy and agriculture.
Engelsman argued for a fair pricing system that takes the social and ecological costs of food into account, in order to avoid passing these onto future generations and the environment.
“This summit has a wonderful ambition, but lacks the means to achieve the ambition,” he said. “We can make progress only if we start accounting in an honest manner and redefine the revenue model.”
Engelsman praised the effort of the Summit to create an integrated approach to food. “Agriculture used to be considered a problem of Wageningen University, health as a problem of the medical establishment and sustainability as an issue for conservationists,” he said. “Today everyone agrees unanimously that food plays a central role, and we acknowledge that farmers provide social services in the area of health, water quality, biodiversity and soil management. But still society judges them by kilos per hectare.”
Engelsman expressed disappointment at the failure of the Summit to follow through on goals to encourage a switch from meat to fruit and vegetables as a means of protecting the environment.
“A tax on meat would be a logical instrument,” he said, “and the fact that Minister Van Dam has taken the meat tax off the agenda after the very first protest from the meat industry does not give off a strong signal.”
He also took exception to the standard notion of affordability, arguing that the externalisation of costs had to stop.
“People keep saying that food has to remain affordable,” he said. “If you go to the supermarket, you see heaps of affordable food, mainly heavily processed products containing large amounts of sugar, soy bean oil and palm oil in order to increase margins. This means that high external costs are hidden behind these products. And yet they are more affordable than fresh fruit and vegetables, so something is clearly wrong.”
The solution, he suggested, was True Cost Accounting. “If you refuse to establish tax regulations with breaks and penalties in order to create a fair playing field, you have to at least start calculating in a fair manner,” he said.