by Paul Edmunds
I put the question to my interviewee: were the food on my supermarket shelf priced to include the environmental costs of industrial agriculture –the carbon emissions and pollution generated in its cultivation and transport, the lost topsoil, depleted diversity etc – would it be any cheaper than my organically-cultivated heirloom vegetables, produced on a small allotment a short walk from my home in a middle class Cape Town suburb? It’s a tricky question to answer, and when you throw in the social costs of the reduced nutritional value of the shelf-stable, processed foods which comprise the average South African food basket, it starts to get scary.
Our basic unit of energy – the calorie – is for the most part generated by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels: in the food and electricity we produce, and in our transport and manufacture. The price we pay for this calorie fails to account for the effects of its combustion and transformation, consigning a significant portion of its value to the waste bin, an increasingly absurd conceit on a planet of finite resources and capacity to absorb our carelessness.
Almost everything, in effect, is discounted by this. And not only do we fail to atone for the destructive effects of our energy consumption, but we too subsidise its extraction and production. The international fossil fuel industry is subsidised by governments to the tune of around $370bn annually according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development. (Here, Sasol, for example, gets two bites of the cherry. Of their ZAR8bn in subsidies, the majority comes from their exemption from the Carbon Tax Act of 2015 – a subsidy by omission, if you like.)
As long as the burning and transformation of fossil fuels remains at the root of human activity, we will be accumulating a debt we can never pay off and the world around us cannot simply absorb. There are some measures we can adopt – renewable energy production, regenerative agriculture, recycling etc. – that will reduce the accruing debt, but it is their less popular cousin ‘restraint’ that is most important: we cannot afford to get what we want, when we want it, in quantities we desire, and that at a price which fails to account for its real cost.