The True Cost of Food

The True Cost of Food
“Instead of asking why local food is so expensive, why aren’t we asking why conventional food is so cheap?”

This question and its possible answers are complicated. The question brings up issues of fair labor practices, environmental degradation, food justice, animal welfare, racial inequities, supply chain transparency, human health...the list could go on and on. Although this question is an important one that needs to be discussed and thought about, in a sense it simplifies the problem. The solution to our broken food system must dig deeper than this question. If we think the solution is to simply buy sustainable, organic food at a higher price, we are mistaken. Although, that doesn't mean that supporting regenerative farming practices is not part of the solution either. It’s important to preface this analysis of looking at the true cost of food with the acknowledgement that our food system is broken and there needs to be transformative, systemic change. However, looking into the hidden costs associated with our current food system is still important to think about and consider.

When purchasing food at the grocery store, the foods we buy have lived an entire life before they reach our shopping carts. These past histories are not easily distinguishable to the naked eye when comparing organic versus conventional vegetables at the market. Nonetheless, these disparate lives hold heavy implications for human and environmental health. 

Factors such as the agricultural practices used to grow food, the labor standards in place at the farm, or the treatment of animals, all play a role in the quality of food that we consume. However, in modern day industrial agriculture many of these costs are not included in the price we pay for food and as a result, food is priced too low because social and environmental factors are not considered in the economic framework. Well, that’s great, food should be affordable! 

Unfortunately, we still pay for these externalized costs. However, we just do so in indirect ways such as healthcare costs, the degradation of our environment, and the inhumane treatment of workers. Oftentimes these costs are unevenly distributed onto society, whereby the poorest suffer the most. There is no silver bullet that will suddenly reflect the accurate cost of food. However, if we have an understanding of the root causes of these discrepancies, we can begin to reveal and understand how broken our food system is. And the first step to solving a problem is to understand it.

The Problem with Industrialized Agriculture

In the early 20th century with the advent of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides, agriculture was able to pivot from a farmer growing a diverse arrayment of different crops, to a farmer specializing in only one crop and mechanizing the process. This industrialization of agriculture that we still practice today was deemed as a technological miracle that would aid us in feeding our rapidly growing population. However, through this process, we degrade our own health and that of natural ecosystems. The Union of Concerned Scientists explain that industrial agriculture views the farm as a factory with “inputs” (such as pesticides, feed, fertilizer, and fuel) and “outputs” (corn, chickens, and so forth). The goal is to increase yield (bushels per acre) and decrease costs of production, usually by exploiting economies of scale. The system of capitalism is clearly mirrored in the structure of factory farming. In this model, with the only metric being maximum yield, the upfront price is lower, but the tradeoffs with this type of mass production are often worse than the benefits that come with cheaper food. No one would argue that we don’t want to feed our growing population and create food accessibility for all, however using maximum yield as the sole metric for productivity of a farm leads to harmful consequences. 

Industrialized agriculture is characterized by large-scale monocultures, heavy chemical fertilizer and pesticide usage, and inhumane livestock practices. In this model, the soil is stripped of its nutrients to obtain the greatest yield from the crops. All of those nutrients are sent off the farm, when the food is wrapped in single-use packaging and shipped miles away. Different crops need various amounts of nitrogen and other nutrients to grow. With monocultures, there is only one kind of crop being grown and therefore the soil is depleted because it doesn’t have the ability to naturally regenerate its nutrient supply. Synthetic fertilizer is then needed to augment the depleted nutrient. The fertilizer (usually nitrogen or phosphorus) is applied in excess and when the fields are irrigated the remaining synthetic fertilizer and pesticides run off of the farmland into lakes, rivers, and marine environments. The runoff creates eutrophied, low-oxygen dead zones that are inhabitable for most plants and animals. Additionally, the massive monocultures perpetuate habitats with low biodiversity making them more susceptible to disease and easily perturbed out of equilibrium. These environments have low resilience to return to a healthy, productive state. They foster a food system that is unstable and vulnerable to disturbances; something we are currently seeing with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Shifting Paradigms

In 2018, a groundbreaking report was released by the Economics of Ecosystem and Biodiversity (TEEB) for Agriculture and Food. This Scientific and Economic Foundations report was a project of the United Nations Environment Program that takes a holistic approach to redesigning our food system. It uses a multilateral framework to look at food from its production to disposal across multiple dimensions including human health, environmental health, labor standards, food accessibility, and ultimately achieving universal food security. It’s an important report because it pushes for change at the government and policy level, instead of putting the responsibility on the consumer to buy sustainably sourced food. The report takes a systems approach to the problem and brings to light how our current way of accounting in the food system is flawed and does not incorporate natural capital (the resources and dependency we have on nature to sustain our food habits).

Timeless Seeds co-founder Dave Oien observes a lentil plant. Photo: Amy Kumler

A new way of looking at the true cost of food, called True Cost Accounting, has come about in recent years and is supported by a variety of different groups including the Sustainable Food Trust, Global Alliance for the Future of Food, and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. True Cost Accounting is a tool used to investigate the impacts of industrial agriculture and advocates for sustainable alternatives. This approach is a push back from years of a food system that was only concerned with the needs of business and neglected the well-being of consumers and farmers. It brings all of the components of food into the equation including environmental and social aspects. This gives all parties a more accurate illustration of how much food really costs and can inform policy makers with transparent information in order to make policies that can foster a fair food system. Uncovering the true cost of food can guide the path to restructure a new and equitable food system.

Education

Solving our broken food system is going to require both radical change that works to completely change our relationship with food, as well as reform movements that sprouts from consumers and grassroots organizing. As consumers, we can continue to learn about what the story of our food is and work to find out where our food comes from. For the remainder of August, here on Food for Thought, we will continue to dive into some of the issues that are woven into our food system. We will take a deeper look into how food and our diets are linked, food justice and racial inequality, supply chain transparency, and resiliency in the food system. We must uncover the true cost of food so that we can make informed decisions, all the while remembering structural change must also happen. Let’s ask ourselves what the true cost of food is and what that means for the well-being of ourselves and the planet.

Provided below are more resources related to the true cost of food that can support the continual learning we can do as a community.

Podcasts

Books

  • More Than Just Food - Garret M. Broad
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma - Michael Pollan
  • In Defense of Food - Michael Pollan
  • Project Drawdown & updated 2020 report
  • Farming While Black - Leah Penniman
Data
Driver, K. (2016, August 5). Industrialization of Agriculture. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. http://www.foodsystemprimer.org/food-production/industrialization-of-agriculture/

On True Cost Accounting and the Future of Food. Global Alliance for the Future of Food. 2019.

Plant-Based Diets for Succulence and Sustainability. (2019). United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.
TEEB (2018). TEEB for Agriculture & Food: Scientific and Economic Foundations. Geneva: UN Environment.
Union of Concerned Scientists. Industrial Agriculture: Features and Policy. Available: http://www.ucsusa.org/ food/ind.ag.html [cited 22 January 2001].
Willett, W., Rockström, J., Loken, B., Springmann, M., Lang, T., Vermeulen, S., ... & Jonell, M. (2019). Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet, 393(10170), 447-492