Monday, August 15, 2011

The Real Cost of Cheap Food

A couple weeks ago, a man who was coming to stay at the cottage with his family asked me, "So why is organic food so much more expensive than regular food?"

I have a hard time trying to decide what I found more jaw-dropping: the incredible scope of the question, or the sheer ignorance of someone coming to stay at our "green B&B".*

After a few seconds of furious thought, I was able to organize my brain somewhat and manage an explanation that didn't make me sound like a complete idiot. But afterwards, I started to think about the encounter. Is it really such a fantastic question? Many people just think of organic food as the "expensive" alternative. If you only compare grocery store prices, then yes, it is. But a lot more goes into it than that. For every "cheap" food item you buy, there are invisible costs somewhere that you are encouraging - costs that are taken out on you, your community, and every tax-payer in the country.

(WARNING: This is a long rant post.)


When you buy a cheeseburger from your favorite fast food place, it probably seems like a good deal. Four bucks for a sandwich, side and drink? Sign me up.

But the hidden costs with cheap food are considerable. The "obesity epidemic" sweeping America is proof of that. One in three adults in the US is considered obese. The number of obese children has tripled since 1980, with 17% of children under the age of 20 considered obese today.

Noticeably, there are considerable racial, ethnic and income-related disparities in obesity. Obesity rates tend to be much higher in low-income neighborhoods. Hispanic children are far more likely than non-Hispanic children to be obese, and African Americans have the highest rates of adult obesity.

But what is the actual cost, in dollars? In 2008, medical costs resulting from obesity were estimated at $147 billion.** Also consider that conditions relating to obesity include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer. That doesn't include what the costs of lost productivity were in that year, or how much of that cost forwarded to the public as part of their tax money.


I think everyone got tired of hearing about environmental problems after the Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill, but when the Australian government reports that the Great Barrier Reef is being significantly damaged due to agricultural chemicals, we have a problem.

Conventional agricultural practices result in a variety of long-term environmental problems. Tillage often subjects the land to severe erosion, for example. To wit - a 1950's topsoil survey of Virginia listed what is now Brightwood Vineyard and Farm as having six feet of topsoil. When Dean and Susan moved here ten years ago, the farm had two. And it takes a thousand years to build a foot of soil.

Then there's pest and weed management, which is what everyone thinks about when the question of environmental impact arises. While Monsanto might be engineering corn that can withstand application of Roundup, anyone who uses a product like that isn't thinking a few steps down the line. The GMO corn might be okay, but all the beneficial microbes in the soil are wiped out. Application of fungicides and pesticides do the same, killing everything in its path, and making the soil anaerobic and completely unfit for use for the next ten years. Runoff of these chemicals then has the predicted effect - tainting water sources, killing wildlife and native plants, and so on.

To counter the complete decimation of their soil, conventional farmers use NPK fertilizers that add "the big three" back into the soil - Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. Other than the ridiculously over-simplified idea that these three nutrients are all crops need to be healthy (and we wonder why produce today has 40% fewer vitamins and minerals than produce from the 1940s, as Michael Pollan courteously explained in In Defense of Food), the application of fertilizer also has consequences for the surrounding environment.

Example: when I was in high school, back in good ol' Indiana, one summer something interesting happened. The run-off of fertilizers from lawns caused severe algae bloom in the Eagle Creek Reservoir, which happens to also be the primary water source for miles around. The algae killed off all the fish, and made the water taste like the inside of a toilet. The county then had to spend taxpayer money to mitigate the problem by getting rid of the algae and restocking the entire lake with fish.

Human Rights

Think about the rice selection at your local grocery store. At the low end of the selection, you have family-size bags of store-brand rice for maybe $2 or $3. At the other end of the scale are small one-pound bags of "specialty" rice - Arborio, perhaps, or wild rice mixes - at $6 or $7 each.

If you're like most people, you probably go for the $2 bag. It's the better deal, yes? But how is such a large amount so cheap?

The answer is most likely that it's taken out of the wages of the workers who cultivate it. Most large farms pay their workers a pittance - not even a living wage. This has been considered a problem in California for years - anyone who remembers the United Farm Workers strikes in the 1980's, led by Cesar Chavez, has an idea what I'm talking about. Our country, especially the agri-business, has a long and illustrious history of importing illegal workers who will work for a fraction of what American citizens would consider appropriate.***

Something like rice isn't usually grown in the US, though. It's grown instead in countries like India, China, South Korea. Not only do workers there have to contend with low pay, but the working conditions are often atrocious. A lot of pesticides that chemical companies like Monsanto and DOW spent years and millions of dollars developing are no longer legal in the United States; these chemicals are now sold to countries where they aren't illegal, creating hazardous working conditions for agricultural workers there.

The bottom line is if you are buying cheap food, then something is wrong. There is no such thing as "cheap food". With organic food purchased at a local farmer's market, you know that your money is going directly to the farmer, that no chemicals were used in the making of your produce, and that it is the healthy choice.

For a much less righteously angry and considerably shorter post on the topic of the externalized costs of cheap food, check out this post on Marion Nestle's blog.

*Lest I sound like a pretentious ass, let me explain that after observing five months worth of visitors, I can safely say that most of them are familiar with (and often eat lots of) organic food.
**Stats can be found at the CDC website.
***The question of illegal immigration is a large and unwieldy one - for a look at this practice, I suggest checking out the documentary Food, Inc.

1 comment:

  1. "For a much less righteously angry and considerably shorter post..."

    The tone of your voice isn't as angry as you might think. You say if you're buying cheap food, something is wrong; you don't say, for example, HEINOUSLY wrong. :)