Invisible Math: Accounting for the Real Costs of Big Ag | Civil Eats

Invisible Math: Accounting for the Real Costs of Big Ag

For years, everyone from Michael Pollan to Alice Waters has been talking about the “true cost of food.” The reasoning is pretty straightforward: Consumers don’t pay the real cost of food because many of the harms done to the environment or public health as a result of industrial farming practices are currently not included in cash register prices.

But just how big are those additional costs we’re not paying? How can we begin to measure them? More importantly: When will these societal debts catch up with us like a giant looming credit card bill we’ve been ignoring for years?

These are precisely the questions, the UK-based Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) set out to answer last December when they brought together leaders from across the worlds of food, farming, conservation, research, finance and government policy (including His Royal Highness Prince Charles, himself) for a conference dedicated to True Cost Accounting in Food and Farming.

This is deeply wonky stuff. But true cost accounting might be an essential tool to changing an economic system that for so long has valued cheap food at the expense of people and the natural world. As the Sustainable Food Trust put it: “We wanted to investigate why our current economic system makes it more profitable to produce food in ways that damage the environment and human health, instead of rewarding methods of production that deliver benefits.”

Here are 10 important points about the high cost of cheap food, based on presentations at the SFT conference (with accompanying videos).

1. Cheap food is expensive. The uncounted social and environmental costs of industrial food production and distribution far exceed the price we’re paying. The global obesity epidemic, collapse of fisheries due to decades of toxic agricultural runoff, loss of pollinators, permanent soil erosion, and increased greenhouse gases are just a few of the many costs not paid at the point of sale. The challenge before us is to find ways to calculate, communicate, and reconfigure these costs so that healthy food production comes across as the true bargain it is, and assumes a dominant role.

2. Not all agriculture systems are equal. Some farming methods have public benefit. Most forms degrade the environment. Presently, most farmers seek to maximize production regardless of short- and long-term effects on communities, topsoil, shared water supplies, and human health. Single-crop monoculture farming, although highly efficient in some ways, eventually takes its toll on the soil, water quality, biodiversity, and community health of an area. In many instances, this form of farming is only “profitable” through government subsidies, crop insurance schemes, and exploitation of natural resources. In the case of agriculture, we have been “borrowing from the future” for far too long.

3. Food waste is rampant. More than one-third of the food produced in the world goes to waste at tremendous environmental and economic cost. That amounts to 1.3 billion tons every year. One-third of the earth’s arable land is required to produce this uneaten food, not to mention the petroleum, water, fertilizers, and agricultural chemical applications as well as the generation of greenhouse gases released in the process. We have a tremendous opportunity to improve food processing and distribution systems. Composting and feeding animals food waste are two important solutions.

4. The Western diet is taking over the globe. High in salt, fat, and sugar, our diet is rapidly becoming a global way of eating. Grain-fed animal products are also now the primary source of saturated fats in the Western world. But factory animal farms are resource intensive and waste generating. In fact, the escalating demand for meat and dairy products can be seen as one of the top challenges humans face as we try to feed ourselves without destroying the planet’s life support systems.

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5. We need to act fast. Extreme weather events linked to climate change will impact food production. Soils are finite and must be protected through cover cropping, pasture rotations, wild field buffers, and other methods. Developing financial mechanisms to support beneficial agricultural systems should be an international priority. Meanwhile, we should make destructive food production systems unaffordable.

6. Agriculture can help reverse the rise of CO2. Single compost applications on grasslands can increase carbon sequestration in the soil at an average of one ton per hectare (2.5 acres). This can result in long-term carbon capture and substantially increased capacity for water retention. One-third of the earth’s land surface is in grasslands. With proper management, grasslands have the unique ability to capture atmospheric carbon, store water, and provide agricultural productivity.

7. Subsidies distort the true costs of healthy food. Many current government programs actually pay polluters for contaminating the land, water, and communities with animal wastes and agrochemicals while increasing corporate market domination and profits. These subsidies, which can reach as high as $20 billion per year in the United States alone, make foods seem artificially cheap. Industrialized countries have a unique opportunity and responsibility to invest public funds in a new generation of farming practices that conserve natural habitats, minimize chemical use, protect water, while still producing the healthiest food possible.

8. Food and disease are interconnected. Chronic low-dose exposure to “cocktails” of multiple agrochemicals are commonly the cause of cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and other epigenetic disturbances (changes in DNA sequences). Obesity, Type II diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases are on the rise around the world. The health costs of dealing with nutritional epidemics threaten to bankrupt states and countries in the not-too-distant future. Our present calculations of the health costs of industrial food production are based on outdated methodologies and are severely underestimated.

9. Biodiversity is in steep decline and farming is to blame. Agriculture systems of the late 20th Century have been a key driver in a major decline in biodiversity across the world. It starts with clearing of habitat for agriculture expansion. Food webs decline with the loss of wild plant species as well as bugs, birds, bats, and other species. The loss of biodiversity is one of the costs of industrial agriculture that is most difficult to calculate. And yet, in a world where all living things are interconnected, even as the smallest elements of the whole disappear, we are all impoverished. Meanwhile, many of the world’s poorest people still rely on the products of diverse ecosystems to feed themselves.

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10. A new narrative is necessary. We need to find new ways to speak to farmers, consumers, public officials, and others to lead the world into an age of food production and consumption where the healthiest food possible is produced from the healthiest environments possible and accessible to as many people as possible.

Image: Shutterstock.

Dan Imhoff is the author of multiple books about the food system, including Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill and CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, (winner of the Nautilus 2011 Gold Prize for Investigative Reporting). Find out more at Read more >

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  1. One-third of the world's food goes to waste. That's pretty staggering.

    Composting and animal feed are two good approaches, but another important solution is food banking, or "gleaning." Because the world also has a huge hunger problem, it makes perfect sense to connect surplus food to those who need it. Food banks like the one I work for in Michigan keep millions of pounds of food out of the landfill each year, while helping farmers and retailers recoup some of their lost revenue through tax breaks. It's an elegant solution to two pressing problems.
  2. I heard about "externalized" costs when I talked to farmers over 10 years ago. It's true and it can be quantified, and it's old news. What isn't discussed is the toll on people who are NOT ACTUALLY HUNGRY. Think about it. If you can keep people who are not making it in the society--not working, not producing, failing--from not actually FEELING hungry, what do you have? An obese populous for sure, with loads of diabetes, heart problems and so on, but are they complaining? Stuff people full of cheap crap that makes them feel both good (salt, sugar, fat) , and equal to the rich (we all eat potato chips for heaven's sake & watch the Super Bowl), and the result is a compliant, conforming public that only responds to marketing cues. They don't give a rat's tuchus about politics; they don't even vote; they don't care. It's a conforming public that doesn't have the energy or the inclination to complain. Screw it. I don't have a job, but my gut doesn't feel half bad. I see guys on the subway who are in terrible shape, homeless, unhappy, rejected, depressed, but they are not hungry because you can get a bag of chips and a Coke for nothing. You can even get clothes that cost nothing even if you somehow pay for it. The "people" aren't going to rise--they've been placated by the "system of cheap" designed for them and all of us--so who is going to do something about it? No one.
  3. "Sustainability" is essential a process to 'add an ecological dimension' to the economy. From a agriculture perspective this can be accomplished via an ecocommerce framework.
  4. dan
    Food prices r going up, we have food banks and you keep saying we dont pay enough for food
  5. This meeting was long overdue and the discussions enlightening. BUT, what is really new? As the co-chair of the IAASTD report, Agriculture at a Crossroads, published back in 2009, i can confirm that all these points were already raised, and HRH, Prince Charles has at many occasions spoken about the need to have its findings and options for action implemented. Therefore my question: Why is so little happening, except more talk? The problem is that no one wants to name the elephant in the room, some of the speakers at the meeting have even been working for it in the past. We, farmers and consumers, need to take action against these vested interests, which are benefiting from the status quo, from more green revolution type agriculture, which we know is at the bases of much of the bad food, bad environment, climate change that are affecting people and the ecosystem as a whole. Also traditional agriculture has its problems, and the entire food system, from production to consumption needs an overhaul.....again, just read the IAASTD reports, and you will see what 400 experts from across the world and food system disciplines had to say. We do not need more industrial and high input agriculture to produce more food, evidence shows that small holder farmer are more productive. We already produce enough food for some 12 to 14 billion people, but in the wrong places, the wrong stuff and by the wrong people. We do not need climate smart, efficient agriculture as some would like to have it called. We need simply sustainable production and consumption systems, that are eco-functional, follow the principles of agro-ecology and deal with agriculture's multifunctionality. We need an agriculture that produces nutrients, not mere calories, we need food that is culturally acceptable, not a few crops that grow across the world, and are devoid of nutrients. We need a greater diversity on the plate and then it will be reflected in the field too, as the basic tenants of sustainable production system want to have it: bio-diverse. These will also be resilient against climate change.....but that is not what climate smart agriculture is....i.e., more biotech, mono crop, animal factories and technology (as promoted by the World Bank, Grow Africa, New Alliance for Food and Nutrition Security, the B&M Gates Foundation, some other large NGO's) that deal with the problem's symptoms rather than the causes. Herein lies yet another great problem with the new definition of what sustainable agriculture is. Climate smart, sustainable intensification, efficient agriculture, etc...are all symptom treatments. This is what makes the agribusiness work, sell inputs on a permanent bases, and not solve the problem on a permanent bases, never mind creating new ones.
    We can talk until the cow come home, but it is sufficiently clear that until the elephant in the room is recognized and asked to step aside or change (which I don't see happening in a lifetime), we will keep talking, coming up with good ideas (repeating them) and remain in the same place, or actually going backwards. Governments need to take matters of agriculture, food and nutrition security in their now hands again, as it is irresponsible to leave these in the hands of the private sector, given the fact that food is a human right. doing so will give a stronger hand to government in assuring that full costing is being implemented, that subsidies are eliminated and a system put in place that will assure food for all, even the less fortunate, by supporting school meal, and other nutritious meals support programs, tax breaks, etc...Basically this would amount to a reallocation of todays, mostly, perverse subsidies, to assist the needy. In the end, the best way to deal with the true pricing and assure quality food for all, is to eliminate the huge inequalities in our societies. Hans R Herren

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