Who Pays the High Cost for Cheap Food?

fruit and vegetable basket

Let’s talk about the high cost of cheap food. As one of the main themes of my upcoming book, Grain by Grain (in stores on March 5th), we can no longer afford the high cost of cheap food. There have been two main goals regarding our food supply since World War II: The first is for food to be plentiful and the second is for that food to be cheap. As the laws of supply-and-demand go, being plentiful and being cheap usually go hand-in-hand. So the goal was easy to achieve. But these goals are achieved at the expense of everything else!

We’re starting to recognize the very high cost of our cheap and abundant food and we don’t pay this cost at the checkout counter when we buy our groceries.

  • Farmers pay it financially with low profits for their crops.
  • Rural communities pay it with the decline of local farms and income.
  • Our planet pays it with increasing evidence of pollution in our food and water (Roundup Rain, aka glyphosate).
  • And people pay it with poor health.

WE pay the high cost of cheap food! Our families. Our friends. Our neighbors.

These high costs were unintended, for the most part. They are consequences of a system focused only on price and yield—cheap and plentiful. But they failed to take into account the effects it would have on all the connecting parts.

There used to be a common saying regarding action and consequence that went something like, “We cannot pick up one end of the stick without picking up the other end.” With our emerging understanding of how everything is interrelated and interdependent, rather than compare the relationship between cause and effect to two ends of a stick, I think it’s more like a giant web. When one part if affected, no matter how small or how far away, the whole is affected.

With a single focus on cause and effect, the goal of cheap and abundant food was achieved by focusing on increasing yields and efficiency. And increased yields and efficiency meant the industrialization of both agriculture and food processing, using more chemicals and bigger machinery. But there was little (or no) thought given to the consequences to anything or anybody beyond “cheap and abundant food.” Whether the decision was a horrible case of naivety or outright deception, I couldn’t say and it doesn’t matter. Unintended consequences are a normal result of almost all human activity throughout history. Mistakes can be forgiven and made right if they are recognized in time and steps are taken to correct them. But if mistakes are ignored, covered up, or denied—blatant lies and false assurances that all is well and there’s nothing to worry about—they are harder to forgive and harder to overcome.

In the weeks to come, I will touch on each of these areas affected by the high cost of cheap food in more detail. After all, we can only fix a problem once it is recognized and the source of the problem is identified. We know what the problem is and we know the cause. Now is the time to change.