by Cindy Cleary
It’s tempting to save money on food by shopping at discount outlets, searching for the cheapest option. The rising price of gas, food and other necessities is taking its toll on strained budgets. However, is now really the time to sacrifice the quality of our food? What is the true cost of shopping for conventional, “cheap” food?
In our modern economy, the way food is produced and the way we eat create huge costs that are not reflected in our food bills. These costs include real dollars spent on subsidies and environmental cleanup paid through taxes, as well as the hidden costs of damage to the environment, declining health, and increased global poverty.
This information has been presented to the public with books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and the Sierra Club’s educational video and campaign on “The True Cost of Food.” Facts and figures in this article come from www.truecostoffood.org and the book Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel (Portobello Press, 2007).

organic food

The smallest half of farms and ranches receive only $266 per year out of the 14 billion spent on federal farm subsidies. © iStockphoto.com/Seanfboggs

So what does our food really cost? In the Sierra Club video, a family shopping at “Buy-it-All-Mart” is whisked away to uncover the true cost of items in their cart. A pound of conventional steak comes to $815! This price, based on factory farm practices, is broken down by the cost of oil (1 gallon per pound of meat); water (2,500 gallons per pound); wasted feed (10 pounds per pound); destroyed grasslands (for growing feed); and pollution (184 billion cubic feet of greenhouse gas methane is released per year from feedlots). A single conventional tomato costs $374 with a breakdown that includes pesticides, water pollution from runoff, and topsoil lost to monocropping.
If this is the true cost, how do we manage to put food on the table? Federal farm subsidies account for much of the formula. The government spends 14 billion dollars per year offsetting the cost of farming. One might think this is intended for small family farms, but it’s not. More than 65 percent goes to the top 10 percent largest farms. The bottom half collect two percent, amounting to $266 per year for a small farm. Hardly enough to keep a family farm in business.
This support for large corporate farms has been largely responsible for the decline in family farms. Today, seven percent of American farms provide over 72 percent of our food. This means food must be transported from centralized farms to the processing plants and retail outlets. Even “fresh” produce travels an average of 2,000 miles from farm to table, often spending a week in a refrigerated truck. Its quality begins to deteriorate the moment it is picked.

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Fresh vegetable? Today’s conventional produce travels 2,000 miles from farm to fork and spends a week in a refrigerated truck. © iStockphoto.com/bluestocking

So what about nutrition and environmental costs? One billion pounds of pesticides are now used per year and agricultural runoff is the number one pollutant of rivers today, killing entire ecosystems and contaminating groundwater. The EPA says we could save $15 billion worth of water treatment plants if we cut agricultural toxins ($200 per family of four).
The really sad truth is that the pesticides are no longer working. Chemical-immune pests take more and more of the crops as we use more and stronger pesticides. In the 1930s, before pesticides, we lost 30 percent of the world’s wheat crop to pests. Today, after dumping 2.5 million tons of pesticides per year on wheat, the loss to pests is 37 percent. These chemicals kill not only the “bad bugs”, but the “good bugs” as well, degrading the soil. This and other monocropping practices result in the loss of 20 billion tons of topsoil per year.
But the pesticides aren’t just killing bugs and soil. Cancer rates are rising, especially in children and in areas near factory farms. Pesticides, antibiotics and hormones enter our water and food contributing to increased health issues like birth defects, autism, ADD, and resistance to antibiotics. The processed foods in our modern diet are also contributing to child and adult obesity. We are a society that is largely undernourished and overweight which taxes our healthcare system and contributes to rising medical costs.
Because of the subsidies and practices that sacrifice long-term health for short-term profit, inexpensive food is abundant. In America, we are actually spending less on our food, as a percentage of our income, than we did 50 years ago and it continues to drop. While the average was 20 percent in the 1950s, today we spend only 10 percent of our budgets on food. And this is lower than any other country in the world—Europeans spend 20 to 40 percent and in developing countries the average is as high as 75 percent.
What about the food from other countries? Soybeans, rice, corn and coffee are huge commodities in the global food supply. The raw materials are often bought cheap from farmers in countries like India, Korea and Brazil. In fact, the global market has driven these prices so low that many of these farmers can no longer support their families. Many family farms have been held for generations, and when today’s farmers can’t keep them afloat, they resort to despair and even suicide, often drinking the pesticides that caused them to sink into debt.
In some rural districts of Sri Lanka, ingesting pesticides is the leading cause of death in hospitals. In China, 58 percent of all suicides are from ingesting pesticide—two million attempts per year. These dismal statistics are repeated for countries all over the world.
But there is hope. The organic food market is growing by 25 percent a year. Eating local saves up to 17 times in gas costs. By changing our buying habits, the supply must follow the demand. Shopping local, eating organic, eating less meat and using meat that is grass fed, organic and chemical-free, may look more expensive. But these choices significantly reduce the hidden cost to our environment, health and global welfare.