The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture: Myth Three

Editor's Note: "The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture" is excerpted from Fatal Harvest, a new book that chronicles the disasters of industrial farming.

Myth three: Industrial food is cheap

The truth:

If you added the real cost of industrial food -- its health, environmental, and social costs -- to the current supermarket price, not even our wealthiest citizens could afford to buy it.

In America, politicians, business leaders, and the media continue to reassure us that our food is the cheapest in the world. They repeat their mantra that the more we apply chemicals and technology to agriculture, the more food will be produced and the lower the price will be to the consumer. This myth of cheap food is routinely used by agribusiness as a kind of economic blackmail against any who point out the devastating impacts of modern food production. Get rid of the industrial system, we are told, and you won't be able to afford food. Using this "big lie," the industry has even succeeded in portraying supporters of organic food production as wealthy elitists who don't care about how much the poor will have to pay for food.

Under closer analysis, our supposedly cheap food supply becomes monumentally expensive. The myth of cheapness completely ignores the staggering externalized costs of our food, costs that do not appear on our grocery checkout receipts. Conventional analyses of the cost of food completely ignore the exponentially increasing social and environmental costs customers are currently paying and will have to pay in the future. We expend tens of billions of dollars in taxes, medical expenses, toxic clean-ups, insurance premiums, and other pass-along costs to subsidize industrial food producers. Given the ever-increasing health, environmental, and social destruction involved in industrial agriculture, the real price of this food production for future generations is incalculable.

Environmental costs

Industrial agriculture's most significant external cost is its widespread destruction of the environment. Intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers seriously pollutes our water, soil, and air. This pollution problem grows worse over time, as pests become immune to the chemicals and more and more poisons are required. Meanwhile, our animal factories produce 1.3 billion tons of manure each year. Laden with chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, the manure leaches into rivers and water tables, polluting drinking supplies and causing fish kills in the tens of millions.

The overuse of chemicals and machines on industrial farms erodes away the topsoil -- the fertile earth from which all food is grown. The United States has lost half of its topsoil since 1960, and we continue losing topsoil 17 times faster than nature can create it. Biodiversity is also a victim of industrial agriculture's onslaught. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 75 percent of genetic diversity in agriculture disappeared in this past century. The resulting monocultured crops are genetically limited and far more susceptible to insects, blights, diseases, and bad weather than are diverse crops.

There is also large-scale downstream pollution caused by long-distance transport of industrial food. The food on an average American's plate now travels at least 1,300 miles from the field to the dinner table. Vehicles moving food around the world burn massive amounts of fossil fuels, exacerbating air and water pollution problems. Currently, consumers pay billions of dollars annually in environmental costs directly attributed to industrial food production, not including the loss of irreplaceable and priceless biodiversity and topsoil, and the incalculable costs of problems such as global warming and ozone depletion.

Health costs

Conventional analyses also ignore the human health costs of consuming industrial foods, including the contribution of pesticides, hormones, and other chemical inputs to our current cancer epidemic. Also uncalculated are the expenses and lost workdays of 80 million Americans who contract food-borne illnesses each year. Moreover, industrial food's health price tag should reflect the expense, pain, and suffering of the tens of millions who are victims of such diseases as obesity and heart disease caused by industrial fast-food diets. Taken together these medical health costs are clearly in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farming is among the most accident-prone industries in the United States. Whereas the occupational fatality rate for all private sector industries is 4.3 per 100,000 full-time employees, the rate for agriculture, forestry, and fishing occupations was 24 per 100,000 -- or nearly six times the national average. For migrant farmworkers, health conditions are even worse. Migrant workers, who now account for more than half of all food production in the United States, are 15 times more likely to manifest symptoms of pesticide exposure than non-migrant farm employees in California, according to Sandra Archibald of the Humphrey Institute. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 300,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning each year.

Loss of farms and communities

Industrial agriculture's dislocation of millions of farmers and thousands of farm communities also does not appear in usual food cost calculations. Seventy years ago there were nearly 7 million American farmers. Today, after the onslaught of industrial agriculture, there are only about 2 million, even though the U.S. population has doubled. Between 1987 and 1992, America lost an average of 32,500 farms per year, about 80 percent of which were family-run. A mere 50,000 farming operations now account for 75 percent of U.S. food production. Meanwhile, at supermarkets our purportedly cheap food is getting more expensive as industrial agriculture passes along the high costs of wasteful processing and packaging techniques. But the money isn't going to the farmers. The vast majority of the profits go to corporate middlemen who squeeze farmers both when selling them seed and when purchasing their crops for processing.

The loss of farmers also means the loss of farm communities and culture, along with the businesses those communities supported. Current costs associated with industrial food and agriculture do not include welfare and other government payments to ex-farmers and farmworkers driven into poverty. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment studied 200 communities and discovered that as farm size increases, so does poverty. As farm size and absentee ownership increase (both endemic to industrial agriculture), social conditions in the local community deteriorate. Businesses close and crime increases. It is difficult to put a dollar value on the loss of farmers and communities; clearly much of what is lost is priceless. However, numerous studies have put the costs of such dislocation since World War II in the tens of billions of dollars.

Tax subsidies

Taxpayers cover billions of dollars in government subsidies to industrial agriculture. Price supports, price "fixing," tax credits, and product promotion are all forms of "welfare" for agribusiness. Among the most outrageous subsidies is the $659 million of taxpayer money spent each year to promote the products of industrial agriculture, including $1.6 million to McDonald's to help market Chicken McNuggets in Singapore from 1986 to 1994 and $11 million to Pillsbury to promote the Doughboy in foreign countries. Taken together these subsidies add almost $3 billion to the "hidden" cost of foods to consumers.

The powerful myth that industrial food is cheap and affordable only survives because all of these environmental, health, and social costs are not added to the price of industrial food. When we calculate the real price, it is clear that far from being cheap, our current food production system is imposing staggering monetary burdens on us and future generations. By contrast, non-industrial food production significantly reduces and can even eliminate most of these costs. Additionally, organic practices reduce or eliminate the use of many chemicals on food, substantially decreasing the threat of cancer and other diseases and thus cutting health-care costs. Finally, small-scale sustainable agriculture restores rural communities and creates farm jobs. If the public could only see the real price tag of the food we buy, purchasing decisions would be easy. Compared to industrial food, organic alternatives are the bargains of a lifetime.

"The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture" were compiled by the editors of Fatal Harvest, which is published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology and distributed by Island Press.

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