The world of cheap produce and its consequences
By Bee Wilson
If you want to make a roomful of people argue with each other, one of the fastest ways is to express any kind of opinion about “cheap food”.
To some, it is perfectly obvious that cheap food is an evil that results in underpaid farmers, degraded land and tortured animals. To others, it is equally obvious that cheap food is the great safeguard that stands between poor people and hunger.
To this second group, the attacks on cheap food look suspiciously like “And-where-do-you-shop?” snobbery from those who have never known the anxiety of feeding a family on benefits. But to the first group, most of the so-called cheap food in the world is not as cheap as it seems – the concept ignores the high external costs of industrial agriculture.
As so often in heated debates, the two sides are arguing about different things. “Cheap food” has many faces, depending on whether you are a producer or a consumer and also whether you happen to have a shopping list in your hand.
Food retailers know that it is an unusual customer who does not look favourably on low prices – or “everyday value” as the supermarket Tesco has it.
The same was true in Victorian London, where anyone who wanted to buy a pound of strawberries or some onions or a nice fresh herring for the lowest price would get it from a street seller called a costermonger.
The word costermonger derives from a kind of large round apple called a “custard” (not to be confused with the Asian fruit the custard apple), but by 1850, these humble pedlars were selling not just apples but almost any edible item that a Victorian could want, from oysters to gooseberries, and from bloaters (a kind of smoked herring) to “penny lick” ice creams, which, as the name suggests, cost only a penny.
No one knows exactly how many costermongers there were in London during late Victorian times. Most food hawkers were illiterate and couldn’t fill out a census return even if they wanted to, which they probably didn’t.
Given that they were frequently harassed by the police, these sellers tended to be distrustful of authority. In 1851, an official government census put the number of London food street sellers at 3,723, but the reformer Henry Mayhew said this was an “absurdly small” figure.
Mayhew’s own research suggested that the true number of those hawking various kinds of fish, fruits and vegetables in London was 35,000, not to mention the thousands of other sellers touting anything from hot baked potatoes and pies to sandwiches and nuts.
In the mid-1890s, Arthur Sherwell estimated that the number of London costers who were heads of families was 24,094, but this figure did not include unmarried costers or women; nor, crucially, did it include the thousands of young children on whom the trade depended. By the 1880s, those “penny lick” ice creams tended to be sold by Italian children, indentured to “padroni” who paid them little and made them sleep in cramped dwellings four or five to a bed.
We may not know how many Victorian street food sellers existed but what we do know is that their lives were close to intolerable.
In the early 1900s, a middle-class reformer called Olive Christian Malvery tried to live for a while as a coster but quit after a month, exhausted by the 4 am starts, long walks to the market, and days spent touting in all weather.
Rainy days were bad news for costermongers not only because they had to stand shivering in the wet and cold, but also because there were so few customers – a couple of days of wet weather could mean starvation.
Then again, one costermonger reported that “hundreds of us find the length of even a summer’s day entirely too short for our main purpose, which is to keep the wolf from the door”.
As the geographer Sébastien Rioux writes in The Social Cost of Cheap Food, which covers almost a century of British food politics, from 1830 to 1914, “Costers worked up to eighteen hours a day and still starved at the end of it”. Henry Mayhew described an eight-year-old girl coster who was so “pale and thin with privation” that she was “wrinkled where dimples ought to have been”.
Her job required her to get to Farringdon Market between 4 and 5 in the morning every day. Her only food, twice a day, was two slices of bread and butter with a cup of tea. On Sundays she got a scrap of meat.
The “unattainable dream” for costers, according to Rioux, was to make enough money to invest in a wheelbarrow or donkey cart rather than having to haul around all of their stock in a heavy tray or basket.
The vast majority of them never achieved this goal, given that their average income in the 1850s was 10 shillings a week and a barrow cost 25 to 40 shillings.
To be a costermonger was often a last refuge for immigrants, “unskilled” or injured workers, who could not find any other work; but it was not much of a refuge, even by the standards of the rest of the Victorian working class.
In 1904 a doctor called Alfred Eicholz observed that 90 per cent of the costermonger boys he saw in Lambeth, Newington and Walworth were suffering from anaemia and many of them had blight in their eyes and prematurely ageing skin.
Adult costers also had severe health problems, both physical and mental. In the 1880s, a study had found that the rate of mortality among costermongers was twice as high as the average across all occupations. Street sellers ranked “tenth for liver disease, eighth for gout, fourth for urinary infections, second for diseases of the nervous system, first for diseases of the circulatory system and first for suicide”.
To respectable Victorian society, the misery and degradation of street sellers was largely seen as a thing apart from the main economy. Costers were part of what were sometimes called the “dangerous classes”, who were regarded as an exception to the rule of Victorian progress.
These vendors were often subjected to fines or even imprisonment by the police for obstructing the traffic. In 1893 a social reformer called Helen Dendy argued in a speech at the Economic Club that this street-selling class was “economically dead” and had “no real use” in a “modern economy”.
Rioux argues that this analysis was not only judgemental but wrong. “Far from being anachronistic figures, these castaways of industrial capitalism were indeed essential to its functioning.” Rioux’s thesis is that the substantial rise in living conditions in the British working classes as a whole after 1870 would have been impossible without the cheap labour provided by costermongers as well as by other food sellers such as shopkeepers and market traders, many of whom also depended on child labour.
The misery of the costermongers was not an exception to the rule of economic “progress”, but one of the conditions that made this progress possible, argues Rioux.
The greatest cause of the costermongers’ suffering was also the greatest thing that they had to offer to their customers: cheap food. Costers operated on tiny profit margins precisely because they competed so fiercely with each other for customers.
Rioux quotes John Denton, a costermonger at Spitalfields who noted that “We have to buy cheap, because if we did not buy cheap we could not sell cheap, and if we could not sell cheap we could not sell a quantity, and if we did not sell a quantity it would not pay us”.
These cheap prices were a boon to other workers as well as to middle-class housewives, who often frequented costermongers.
The period from the 1870s to the start of the First World War saw a steep rise in working-class living standards in Britain, much of it underpinned by a vast array of cheap imported foods.
Thanks to new refrigerated steamships and a growing railway network, such items as butter, eggs and meat could be transported from as far afield as New Zealand and Argentina.
The British started to eat butter from Denmark; oranges and grapes from Spain; mutton from Argentina; bacon and cheese from the United States; wheat from Canada. The percentage of meat consumed in Britain that was imported rose from 13.6 per cent in 1872 to 42.3 per cent in 1912.
The influx of these new cheap food imports gave many in the working classes a much more varied and tasty diet than before. Eggs were no longer a luxury and as the price of imported fruit fell, many in the cities started eating oranges and bananas for the first time.
They could only afford to buy these foods because the costers who sold them kept the prices too low to allow themselves a decent life. By the same token, big shopkeepers kept food prices down by forcing employees to work long hours for low pay.
A ninety-hour week was not uncommon for a clerk in a Victorian grocer shop, but these hours still might not deliver a wage large enough to live on, despite the cheapness of food.
Cheap food, Rioux convincingly posits, is the answer to the question of how modern free market societies have succeeded in shoring up living standards for workers even in the face of stagnating wages.
In a capitalist society, viewed from the point of view of consumers, cheap food looks like an unequivocal democratic good, because it enables people to feed themselves, even on relatively low incomes.
Cheap food, Rioux explains, can counter-balance “the structural effects of pay cuts, temporary unemployment, and economic uncertainty”.
The missing part of the picture, however, is that cheap food is also one of the factors pushing large swathes of the workforce into exploitation and poverty. Cheap food and cheap labour go hand in hand, and this is as true today in the US as it was in London in the 1880s, as Rioux discusses in his conclusion:
Out of the twenty occupations with the lowest median wages in 2012 [in the US], at least a third of them were directly related to food distribution, including cashiers; counter attendants in cafeterias, food concessions and coffee shops; cooks in fast food restaurants; hosts and hostesses; and waitresses and waiters.
With an annual income of about $20,000 for full-time work, most of these workers are locked into poverty wages.
Around the world, food service workers have been some of those hit hardest by the economic effects of the coronavirus lockdown.
At the end of April, the Guardian reported that many of those sleeping rough on the streets of London were now out-of-work chefs and waiters or people who had been working in hotels and pubs.
It has been peculiarly shocking to realise that these employees who had worked so hard to provide the rest of us with delicious things to eat for so many years should now be without food or shelter.
Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City, University of London, presumably sees coronavirus as having brought to the surface fault lines that have long been present in the UK food system.
Customers prefer cheap food and, as he points out in Feeding Britain, hospitality workers were already in a precarious state, with 200,000 of them paid below the minimum wage in 2018.
Lang argues that despite its plenty, the UK food system is more insecure than it seems. Written well before the pandemic, these observations seem remarkably prescient. In some ways, however, Lang’s meticulously researched and hard-hitting story is a continuation of that told by Rioux.
The cheap food imports of late Victorian times have now escalated to the point where the country grows just over half of the food it eats and in some categories, such as fruit, as little as 12 per cent.
No one presumes that Britain could ever be fully self-sufficient in food – or at least, not if we want to continue to enjoy crops such as coconuts, coffee or mangoes, which need very different climates.
But Lang argues that in order to become “a food secure society”, Britain could grow a great deal more of its food than it does, and make better use of existing farmland, devoting less of it to meat and more to nuts and vegetables.
At the heart of the UK’s food problems, according to Lang, is the “contradictory demand for cheapness, as though that is the most important value to impose on food”.
The cheap food basket of Victorian England would be expensive by today’s standards. A hundred years ago, buying food used up half of an average household’s income; now it is less than 10 per cent (but more for the very poor).
Lang notes that “cheapness consistently comes out as the top consideration for UK consumers”, but in his view this comes at a cost. He agrees with Rioux that one of the problems of cheap food is that it locks food workers in a state of poverty, whether it is British supermarket staff (now being rightly heralded as “key workers”, but still not paid enough) or migrant Spanish vegetable pickers, who earn less than half the legal minimum wage so that we can eat washed baby spinach for a price we will not balk at.
Is food really “cheap”, then, if its production depends on the suffering of other humans?
We need a system that delivers reasonably priced food, writes Lang, but also one where it is actually nutritious. At least the new cheap foods of Victorian times – such as fish and chips and imported oranges – added more protein and nourishment to the working-class diet.
The cheap foods of today add mostly an excess of refined starches, oils and sugars. One of the many reasons to question the cult of cheap food is that much of what is sold as edible does not do a very good job of feeding us.
Lang argues that poor quality food and diet-related ill health have become “normalised” in the UK. More than half of the British food supply now consists of “ultra-processed foods” made by big multinational corporations – from sliced bread to instant noodles, additive-laden items are now part of the fabric of our lives.
When consumed in large quantities ultra-processed food is associated with the rise of obesity as well as diet- related conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It may be cheap, but is it food?
Cheap food is one thing; cheapened food is another. When a Victorian costermonger could not earn enough money to buy fresh food, he or she might starve. When a modern-day worker doesn’t earn enough for fresh food, he or she eats ultra-processed food instead.
The price per calorie of a fast-food burger or a box of doughnuts is far lower than the price per calorie of a bag of kale or a piece of fish.
In his searing and provocative book Hunger, the Argentinian journalist Martín Caparrós states that “obesity is the hunger of the wealthy … [In rich countries] malnourishment went from being a deficit to an excess, from a lack of food to an oversupply of junk food”.
The book follows Caparrós as he meets the hungry of the world in seven different countries: Niger, India, Bangladesh, South Sudan, Madagascar, Argentina and the US. The poor people he meets are likely to be overweight in the US and Argentina and underweight in the other countries, but still, he sees them all as victims of hunger and of a global food system that is not designed to give human bodies what they need.
In Argentina, he speaks to aid workers who tell him that the old, acute, “hardcore malnutrition” has given way to the chronic malnutrition of children who are fed on little but instant noodles, rice and potatoes, who “get used to eating poorly, less than they need”. When we see such children, perhaps we do not even recognise their hunger.
Hunger has been a bestseller in Spain, and it is not hard to see why. It is one of the most unsettling books I have ever read. In clear, direct and angry prose, Caparrós asks the upsetting questions that most of us spend our days avoiding.
The question he keeps coming back to, in a series of interludes between chapters, is “How the hell do we manage to live knowing these things are happening?” By “these things” he means the fact that in a world where there is more than enough food to go around, there are still 800 million people who experience absolute hunger every day and 2 billion people, many of them overweight, who suffer from food insecurity.
His subtitle refers to hunger as the world’s “oldest problem”, yet it is also a new and more brutal scourge in the sense that “for centuries, there was no solution to famine”; today, “feeding the hungry depends only on will”.
Once again, the cheapness of food is at stake. For the acutely hungry of the world, food is clearly too expensive. In his introduction, Caparrós describes a conversation he had in Niger with a woman called Aisha who eats a single ball of millet each day (and some days nothing at all). He asks what she would wish for if a wizard could give her anything, and she replies that she would like a cow, so that she could get milk and sell some of it to have enough money to make fritters to sell at the market.
It’s a bit like the costermonger whose unattainable dream was a wheelbarrow. Caparrós repeats the question, insisting that the wizard can really give her anything. She whispers that she would like “two cows”.
This mindset of scarcity seems a world away from the food system of the West, with our excess of cheap food, but Caparrós suggests that the two ways of life are connected.
At any given time, the hunger of people such as Aisha will have many causes, from poor harvests to climate change to failures of government. But Caparrós shows that the lives of the hungry in Africa and Asia are also intertwined with the financiers of the West, who speculate on the livelihood of millions. In 1991, for the first time, analysts at Goldman Sachs created a food index containing eighteen global commodities including cattle, coffee, corn and wheat.
From that moment on, food became something to be stockpiled or bet on. At the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Caparrós meets a trader who boasts, “It’s this place that keeps the cost of food low in the whole world”.
Cheap food prices in the West can be a disaster for the grain farmers of Guatemala or Bangladesh. Cheap grain on the world markets means that many of the farmers who grow that grain will starve.
The joke, Caparrós points out, is that the overproduction of food is actually contributing to hunger by pushing prices down. In the US, corn is now so inexpensive that most of it is not eaten as corn but rather processed to make more valuable commodities. American corn is fed to pigs for bacon, boiled up into tooth-rotting corn syrup, or turned into biofuel for cars.
Meanwhile in Mexico, land of corn, from the 1990s farmers started to suffer because the US was exporting its own less nutritious corn at aggressively low prices. Around the same time, there was a huge influx of new ultra-processed foods and drinks into Mexico, intensively marketed by multinational food companies.
By 2013, Mexico had become the country with the highest levels of obesity – including child obesity – in the world, overtaking the US.
In the end, cheap food is a symptom of a bigger problem: an economic system in which some lives are treated as less valuable than others.
Caparrós describes our civilisation as one that has “disposable people”. What is the solution to this? Rioux offers no clear answers. Lang says that we need to redesign the food system in such a way that it is fair to producers and workers as well as to consumers.
Caparrós suggests that ending hunger will require “changing the model” and finding “a way of forcing us to share: of forcing goods to be fairly distributed”. We should start by setting out the debate differently, so that we stop shouting and start listening.
The question that matters is not if food is cheap, but if it is affordable, whether for those who eat it or those who produce it or those who serve or sell it. “Affordable” should not only apply to consumption. Is a penny lick ice cream affordable if it means that the person selling it starves?