The High Cost Of Cheap Food

August 31st, 2009

free antibiotics with meat purchasesAmerica has a well-earned reputation for serving up large quantities of cheap, fast food. Such meals may seem like a bargain on the surface, but a closer look shows us that these highly processed, industrialized food products have a multitude of hidden expenses. Brian Walsh, a health and science writer for TIME Magazine, recently tallied up the impact that industrial farming is having on the environment, our health and the national budget. Though he follows in the footsteps of many notable advocates – including Frances Moore Lappé and Michael Pollan – Walsh hopes that, by showing us the numbers, we will finally hold ourselves accountable.

Modern industrialized farming is severely impacting the environment. Our current food system accounts for 19% of all fossil fuel use in the United States, more than any other sector of the economy. The emissions from these fuels leads to increased climate change, and dependence on them leaves our food system hanging in the balance. In a recent interview with WNYC radio, Brian Walsh noted that, as fuel prices rise, so too does the cost of food:

Last year, when there was a spike in food costs, that was partially due to the fact that oil was so expensive… If one of the things that keeps (the food system) cheap is its ability to use petroleum… you have to worry… is that sustainable? What’s going to happen when it costs two, three times as much as it does now?

Waterways and wildlife are paying the price for our love of fossil fuels too. Petroleum is one of the ingredients used in industrial fertilizer. According to Walsh the United States uses 23 million tons of chemical fertilizer every year (10 million tons are used on corn alone). Runoff from fields carries these chemicals to our streams and oceans. This results in “dead zones”; pockets in the ocean that are almost completely void of oxygen and therefore cannot sustain life. Runoff from areas around the Mississippi river have resulted in a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is over 6,000 square miles in area. This greatly impacts the region’s fishing industry, which loses the profit normally generated by the 212,000 metric tons of seafood that disappear each year

The ramifications of cheap food do not end with the environment. Processed foods and industrialized meats are impacting our national health, both physically and economically. 70% of antibiotics used in the United States are given to livestock so that they might survive the conditions on factory farms. Antibiotics may make meat more affordable, but Walsh argues that there are long term problems:

Nowadays farmers can grow (cows and chickens) incredibly quickly and that’s one of the reasons why its less expensive… but the problem is, when you’re using a lot of antibiotics like that, you promote the growth of resistant bacteria. Every time you use an antibiotic drug, bacteria will react to it and some will begin to develop a resistance. And that’s worrying because then you get a rise in infections in human beings that can’t be treated by antibiotics, and we’re already seeing that…

It is estimated that antibiotic-resistant illnesses cost our public health system 4 to 5 billion dollars every year.

Our obsession with cheap food greatly contributes to the obesity epidemic as well. Most American livestock is fed corn, which only increases meat’s fat content. Corn is also used to produce many of our favorite processed foods. To ensure that corn (and by proxy our dinner) stays cheap, the industry has received over $50 billion in government subsidies since 1995. The obesity epidemic accounts for $147 billion of the nation’s yearly healthcare expenses. When you consider that the American taxpayer is fronting the bill, the price of cheap food is decidedly more than what we’re paying at the drive thru.

Corn-based, processed food is thriving at the expense of more nutritious alternatives. “A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda but just 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit.” This leaves struggling families in a predicament; they can choose to buy small quantities of nutritious foods or filling qualities of unhealthy, processed foods. When this is taken into consideration it is no wonder that research has linked obesity to socioeconomic status.

The environmental and health costs of meat consumption will only increase if we continue at our current pace. Americans already eat four times as much meat and dairy as the rest of the world. Walsh suggests that, as developing countries adopt western values, the demand for meat will steadily rise.

As the developing world grows richer, hundreds of millions of people will want to shift to the same calorie-heavy, protein-rich diet that has made Americans so unhealthy – demand for meat and poultry worldwide is set to rise 25% by 2015 – but the earth can no longer deliver.

Faced with the ever-growing toll that cheap food is taking on the environment, our health, and the national budget, many are looking for ways to cut costs. Going meatless on Monday is a great way to do just that. Reducing consumption of meats is one of the easiest and most profitable actions any individual can make, as Michael Pollan notes. Not only does it cut your risk for many preventable diseases, but it also reduces carbon dioxide emissions, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, chemical runoff, and disruption of natural ecosystems.

More, a resurgence of sustainable, local agriculture is imperative if we hope to reduce the expenses caused by our current food practices. Today less than 1% of America’s cropland is farmed organically. Of that land, much of it belongs to companies that have joined the recent green craze, hoping to grab a share of the organic market. Though these products reduce the amount of chemicals going into our food, they still tend to travel great distances from the farm to your table, and continue to be overly processed. Food grown locally saves fossil fuels and tends to be fresher. Acknowledgment of our need to think sustainably is increasing, and so too are accessible options for selecting greener groceries.

The good news is farmer’s markets are on the rise nationwide. Even urban communities have seen a recent resurgence of gardens, markets, and co-ops. Purchasing produce from a farmer’s market ensures that your money is being spent on nutritionally dense food and also helps the country’s small businesses. Some farmer’s markets have even begun accepting food stamps, thereby assuring the right of all individuals to have healthy, satisfying food.

We, as a nation, must begin thinking about the consequences of our choices. As we begin to demand more viable options, we’ll see an increase in availability. One easy thing we can all do for now is go meatless once a week to preserve our health and save the planet. Make this Monday meatless and together we can curb unhealthy, unsustainable food!