The Real Cost of Cheap Food
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Sometimes shoppers are confused by the differences in price between food grown organically and food grown conventionally. Usually organic loses the price war argument in comparison to what is called "conventional" food. Of course, we are all mostly aware that organic means grown and processed without chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, toxic pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic manipulation.
But, what does "conventional" mean? Is food called "conventional" grown and processed with chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, toxic pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic manipulation? Yes it is. And, this is one reason why the price war argument should be reframed. Instead of comparing the price of organic food with "conventional" foods (which sounds so normal and safe), let's compare organic food prices to the food price of toxic or poisonous food, which is what "conventional" food is.
The vegetables, fruits and grains that grocers and agribusiness giants label "conventional" are actually loaded with systemic chemicals, which you cannot wash off. The meat is laced with hormones, antibiotics, prions and multiple resistant bacteria that are difficult or impossible to cook out of beef, lamb, chicken or pork.
Clearly, something in our food system has gone terribly amiss since a majority of the food is loaded with poisonous pesticides, laced with antibiotics and hormones and infused with genetically modified growth hormones or genes from rats, bacteria, viruses and antibiotics and then -- through some bizarre logic -- labeled "conventional." Once one realizes how toxic "conventional" food is, it doesn't look that cheap.
Once one realizes how toxic "conventional" food is, it doesn't look that inexpensive.
Besides the food safety dangers, there are three additional costs that consumers pay for "conventional" food. Estimates are that about half of all the food that U.S. citizens eat is processed. This includes breakfast cereals, breads, flour, tofu, cheese, chicken pot pies, Lean Cuisine and thousands of other products. Most of the ingredients that make up the processed foods come from soy, cotton, corn, rice, canola and wheat. More than 75 percent of these processed foods have genetically modified ingredients. Soy (96 percent), corn (74 percent), cotton (95 percent) and canola (98 percent) are the most genetically manipulated crops.
Soy, cotton, corn, rice and wheat are also the most subsidized crops in the U.S. Those five crops receive more than 80% of all the taxpayer subsidies. In addition, many other "conventional" crops also receive government support from the taxpayers, including milk.
Consumers make cheap food cheap when they pay their taxes. "Conventional" food would be impossible without the farm subsidies -- which means that consumers pay at least two times for most "conventional" foods they buy. They don't seem so cheap anymore -- and that does not include the expenses associated with health issues that occur as the result of eating toxic "conventional" foods.
Unfortunately, everyone pays the second subsidy bill, even the buyer of organic foods, because the subsidy is a tax imposed on all of us by the Farm Bill, which is written by congress and the White House. The current version was just passed by both houses of congress on the 14th and 15th of May, 2008, and most of the current bill is business as usual: billions more for the richest farmers growing the five most subsidized crops.
The third payment for "conventional" food will also be made by the taxpayers, who will pay to clean up chemical spills, cancer-cases, injured farmworkers, injured citizens, polluted groundwater, trashed rivers, oceanic dead zones, contaminated wells, and toxified land that result from the toxins used to produce "conventional" food. The environmental clean up record for the chemical corporations is not good, so don't look for help when the time comes to repair the damage.
When faced with judgments against them, the chemical giants always find a loophole, stall the procedure with whatever tactic that works, and spend enormous sums on legal defense teams. More often than not they escape with no punishment or merely a slap on the wrist for the most egregious crimes, including willful groundwater and soil pollution, poisoned food, widespread illnesses, and death. Unfortunately, both "conventional" and organic consumers will foot this bill.
One of the worst examples of chemical corporation irresponsibility occurred in Bhopal, India in 1984. A chemical plant that produced cotton pesticides leaked a nerve gas; more than 28,000 people were killed and 250,000 blinded and seriously injured. That plant was owned by the chemical and battery giant Union Carbide. When its CEO offered to pay reparations to families of the deceased and to the injured, the corporation decided that such a move, though laudable and charitable, was not in the best interests of the stockholders, so no compensation was paid by the corporation.
The fourth payment for "conventional" food is often made at the doctor's office to treat obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, cancer, birth defects, Parkinson's and a hundred other ailments related to pesticides or poisoned food.
Pundits and scientific hacks will say anything to protect big chemical and factory farming, refusing to discuss these "irrelevant" external costs of our modern food system, including subsidies, environmental cleanup, and skyrocketing medical bills. Instead, they argue that we need cheap food to feed starving people around the world.
We have had a long history of public resistance against dangerously toxic food in this country. We have also had a long history of chemical corporation smokescreens that hide just how dangerous and deadly cheap food is.
As early as the 1870s, farmers and householders got sick from using arsenic and ingesting arsenic in their food and beer, and they began to protest aggressively. However, the FDA continued to protect the large-scale farmers and the chemical corporations from attacks by small farmers, food safety advocates, consumer protection proponents, and environmental groups through the teens, the 1920s and the 1930s.
From 1933 to 1937, the founders of Consumer Reports and Consumer Research warned the U.S. public that they were being poisoned by a steady diet of arsenic, lead, cyanide, fluorine and sulfuric acid. Those organizations continued their efforts to protect the consumers from toxic food through the 1940s and 1950s, and they continue their efforts still.
In 1962, Rachel Carson advised that we must stop damaging and degrading our natural landscape. She warned us to stop eating food poisoned with DDT, lead arsenic pesticides and other chemical sprays. Such "buyer beware" and nature protection advisories from earlier days are even more urgently needed today. Things have gotten much worse. Everything is toxic now. Back then it was just the food. Today it is almost every surface and tool around us. Our current food supply is more toxic than ever before and our environment more damaged. Many pesticides no longer work because the pests have become tolerant of the poison. So, only the most toxic chemicals kill the bugs, which have developed a resistance to the less poisonous chemicals. Consequently, today the most toxic chemicals are the most used pesticides and fertilizers.
Beyond the external costs of "conventional" cheap food, an important aspect of the real price of organic food is the care and commitment to balanced soil health that is a major requirement when transitioning to organic farm management. In organic, the goal is to restore and feed soil life. That requires applying composted manures or vegetables to inoculate the soil with microorganisms. It also means providing organic (vegetable) matter so that the soil microorganisms have plenty to eat. To effect this balancing act, organic farmers add lime, compost, fertilizer crops, gypsum, a bit of phosphorous and some potash. The fertilizer crops are the hardest element for new organic growers to include because they must take land out of production to grow the fertilizer crops. This is good for the next crop but hard for the farmer to adjust to growing a crop that he or she plows in.
Instead of using pesticides, organic farmers closely monitor their crops and release beneficial insects, plant trap or companion crops to confuse the pests, or plant when pests are not such a scourge.
While "conventional" food is usually cheaper in the supermarket, and is easier to manage on the farm, it comes with a dangerous load of pesticide and fertilizer residues that are causing cancers, illness and death. When we analyzed pesticide and fertilizer data for the book "The War on Bugs," we concluded that the corporations call chemical food "conventional" to conceal the fact that the food they produce is grown with the most toxic chemicals on the planet.
If the question about the real price of food was rephrased to ask what is the difference between the price of toxic and organic foods, we would not be marveling about the high cost of organic food, nor advocating to send toxic "conventional" surplus food to the starving millions. Instead, we should be asking "How cheap would poisonous food have to be to be a good deal?"
Will Allen is an organic farmer in Vermont and author of "The War on Bugs" (Chelsea Green, 2008). He is currently a co-chair of Farms Not Arms and a policy advisory board member of the Organic Consumers Association, and he serves on the board of Rural Vermont.