look at the cost not the price

Every day, in front of the supermarket shelves, ravenous consumers storm the products on sale, always looking for the unmissable opportunity. They make calculations, run percentages, and try to take home the greatest number of products at the lowest possible price. At first glance it seems normal, obvious, fossilized in the memory of the citizen-consumer, but is it really a sustainable social practice? How much does this behavior impact the environment? Some experts tried to give some answers and provide some data to analyze the situation in depth.

Calculation of external climate costs for food highlights inadequate pricing of animal products is a study published in Nature Communication by professors Maximilian Pieper, Amelie Michalke, and Tobias Gaugler, respectively from the Universities of Munich, Greifswald, and Augsburg. In the study it is reported that “the environmental damage resulting from food production is not yet reflected in their prices” and again “if the real costs resulting from the impact of greenhouse gases emitted were determined, animal products such as cheese, milk, and meat should be significantly more expensive and also the price difference between organic and conventional products would be lower”. 

One of the aspects that consumers often forget when buying a product is transportation, that is the distance the food had to travel from the production site to the supermarket shelf. According to an analysis of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) food has to travel on average more than 1900 km and about 48% of the transport would be attributable to the final consumer. 

To give some examples a 1 kg of plums from Chile have to fly for 12.000 km, burning 6,7 kg of oil releasing 22 kg of carbon dioxide, while for the air transport of 1 kg of kiwi from New Zealand 24 kg of carbon dioxide are emitted and 7,9 kg of oil are burned. 

In addition, according to the FAO, our diet has a massive environmental impact mainly due to the still large consumption of meat. In fact, the production chain of the meat industry contributes up to 22% of the greenhouse gases produced annually by human activities. More concretely, the global consumption of meat emits about 8 billion CO2 and 88% of the RainForest felled was used for grazing. 

A solution to educate consumers has been found in the study carried out by Pieper, Michalke, and Gaugler, who hypothesized to calculate the real climatic price of the food products we usually buy. For the study, 16 products were taken into account and were added to the normal price the value of greenhouse gas emissions during production, the consequences of nitrogen fertilization, and energy requirements. 

The result was a price increase of 173% for conventionally farmed meat and cow’s milk would have an increase of 122%, with dairy products such as Gouda and Mozzarella having an increase of 88% and 52% respectively. On the other hand, the price increase of vegetable products was lower: potatoes and tomatoes +12%, bananas +19%, and apples +18%. 

The final hypothesis of the study is to insert in supermarkets, next to the sale price, the real price that takes into account all the environmental costs of production, in order to make the customer/consumer aware of their food choices, educating them more to an ecologically sustainable diet.