The real cost

One of the biggest problems of our age is the real cost of food. All input items should be taken into account.

Michael Pollan, an agricultural expert and author of In Defense Of Food, has spelled this out in great detail, which serves as the basis of much of this column.

In the broad sweep of history, it is amazing that our food costs in nominal terms are so low.

Yet, for all kinds of reasons, our overabundant food is much too inexpensive in real terms.

Before going into the economics of “cheap” food, we should be aware of the health problems that this entails.

Our basic monocultures of corn and soy result in a fast-food diet as we turn our high fructose corn syrup into products injurious to our health, such as sodas, inexpensive feed-lot meat and hydro-generated soy oil.

It should come as no surprise that obesity and type 2 diabetes have soared.

Aside from the hazards to health, there are real economic costs to our food policies.

First of all, our monoculture system depletes our soil. That necessitates replenishing the soil with fertilizer, which is made from fossil fuels.

Too, that kind of farming generates lots of pests. To get rid of that nuisance, pesticides are used that also are a by-product of fossil fuels. According to Michael Pollan, all in all it takes ten calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food at the end of that process.

Everyone at the consumer level likes nominally cheap food and low oil prices too.

By now we know that we are not going to reform our energy economy unless we start charging a much higher price for oil.

As well, until we pay the real, total cost of food, we will not improve the health of the general population. We simply must include all the hidden costs that go into producing food.

It must be recognized then that so-called cheap food truly is incredibly expensive.

Aside from the elements inherent in growing food, there are other calculations that should be acknowledged.

There are subsidies provided to our farming population. Further, the pollution effects are almost incalculable. Agriculture is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases, taking an enormous toll on our atmosphere.

On top of all this, there is the burden of transportation expenses, the charge for carrying farm products to processors and then to consumers, as we nowadays have a highly centralized food system.

We add significantly to costs by not processing and distributing food locally. For example, school lunches should come from locally grown products. Politicians are wary of touching commodities subsidies or other aspects of the agriculture system.

However, we must radically alter our agriculture policies and change accordingly

That day must come eventually.


Bruce Whitestone