The Challenge of Cheap Food

A fast food bag entitled "Cheap Eats"

In the rush to provide cheap and plentiful food for our nation, we have inadvertently created a much greater problem and our inexpensive food is now coming at a very high cost. The perception of many folks is that “healthy food” is too expensive, so they don’t buy organic or even fruits and vegetables. And if you’re comparing to the prices on so called “conventional” junk food, the $$$ wins. But at what cost? The price tag is only a small part of the story. Take a $1 hamburger for example. Does anyone ever just spend $1 for a hamburger? It’s a great marketing ploy but add on the extra fries and soda and your $1 isn’t quite enough to cover the final bill. But that’s still pretty cheap, especially compared to the cost of many organic foods.

So what does it actually take to produce that $1 burger? For starters you need corn. A huge investment of cornfield acres, seeds, water, heavy machinery—which require fuel—fertilizers, pesticides and government subsidies. Cattle have to be fattened as quickly as possible to meet demand, which often means antibiotics. Then there are transportation and slaughter house costs, refrigeration, processing and cooking costs. And that’s just for the hamburger patty, let alone the associated costs for the bun and condiments. It’s impossible to believe that the economies of scale are really so efficient that all of those costs amortize to make a really cheap burger. Or, should we just chalk it up as a marketing tactic to sell more burgers as a loss leader to sell soft drinks and fries, which is where the profits really are?

There is momentum developing around answers to this question—that the true costs of cheap food are currently hidden and making high-impact (often junk) food seem cheaper than it should be. The result of this is that obesity and chronic disease is on the rise and, if not checked, will reduce our productivity, continue to increase the cost of medical care and dramatically lower the quality of life for those who are suffering. If we add the cost of the externalities such as cleaning the air, water and soil contamination as well as the manufacturing pollution caused by the bi-products of the trouble making agri-chemicals in the first place, you really have a formula for economic—and health—collapse.

The truth is that the “value” and “low prices” of cheap food that we see at the cash register are not the whole story. Today we are paying with health and higher taxes and tomorrow our children will be paying with a degraded environment, dirty water, denigrated health and decimated jobs and communities. When I hear people complain about the high cost of eating nutritious organic food, I ask them how they feel about the high cost of being sick, not only in terms of money but also quality of life.

Speaking just of wheat—which I know a whole lot more about than other foods—intensive breeding has made modern wheat higher yielding, more disease resistant and able to produce bread with a greater loaf volume (meaning we can now make more bread with less wheat). The industrialization of bread baking, using fast rising yeast, and pasta manufacturing, using high temperature drying, all aim to reduce the time and cost of production. But if you add all this to today’s modern chemical-intensive agriculture—which can only be afforded through high government subsidies—you have a recipe for disaster. Much of this trouble could be reversed by a return to ancient and heritage wheats, traditional and artisan breads and organic agriculture.

There is a growing movement of farmers and scientists, doctors and entrepreneurs that are gathering around the idea that we need true cost accounting in our food supply to help consumers make choices that include the real costs of the way food is grown and how it affects our health and our land. In other words, if the price of the food included internalizing the externalities of its true cost of production, it would be easy to make the right choice at the supermarket since the cost of organic food would then appear cheap in comparison.

It is my hope that before current food systems that pollute our water, destroy biodiversity, exploit workers—especially in foreign countries—and produce high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, that we will be able to turn the tide back to real food produced in a healthy, sustainable way for all.