Over the last several weeks I’ve written a few short essays regarding the high cost of cheap food. First to our farmers, who grow it. Then to our rural communities, which are affected by the struggling farmers. But what about on a larger scale? What is the high cost of cheap food to our environment and to our planet?
This is a more complicated cost to calculate because there’s no specific monetary value to track or obvious disruption to our quality of life—unless your livelihood is directly affected by drift destroying your crop or your fishing business has been impacted by the ever-expanding dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (now nearly the size of New Jersey) and places like it. But really, we are all impacted on a regular basis since a portion of the taxes withdrawn from our paychecks are used to help pay for the cleanup of these kinds of contaminated areas throughout the country.
We are told that agricultural chemicals are used to protect and promote the efficient and abundant production of our crops in America. They are widely used and we are told they are essential to keep our farmers in business and to keep us from starving. Both of those statements are lies. Organic trials throughout the county have demonstrated for years now that well-established organic farms see little reduction in yields, compared to county averages. While conventional farmers are going broke left and right as they struggle to pay for the expensive chemical inputs they’re told are necessary. But the way I see it, there are two big problems with the use of agricultural chemicals on our farms:
- First, most of the chemicals applied are not completely used up by their intended targets: the plants. Chemical fertilizers, for example, are applied at much greater rates than the plants can use. And the excess has to go somewhere! What’s left disrupts the life of the soil. If the chemical is soluble, it seeps into the ground water, affecting our water quality.
- And second, these chemicals—the pesticides and herbicides and insecticides and fungicides—are poisons! They not only effect their target but all other living things they come into contact with in different ways. And they are building up, more and more, in our environment and now in our bodies as their use increases.
Companies, like Monsanto, insisted for years that glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, was safe for humans and would break down quick in the sunlight and soil. Except now we’re finding glyphosate in our rainwater! And while it seems to have little effect on human cells, it has great effect on the billions of bacteria in our gut. And these bacteria outnumber our human cells, they help keep us healthy if they’re protected from harmful chemical poisons.
Chemicals and their negative effects on the land are even instigating violence! The environmental costs are adding up as we continue to pursue and support our “cheap” food. Is it worth it when so much is at stake? Especially when there are healthier, sustainable alternatives? How much are we willing to pay for our cheap food? And for how much longer can we afford to pay it?