By Stephanie Bennett
For many of us, the food that is on our plate is so far from what our ancestors consumed a century ago. Fortunately, the sustainable food movement has been growing and consumers have been incorporating more organic, non-processed foods into their diets. Yet, this can appear to be an expensive endeavor, which many families believe they cannot afford. The cost of organic food is often more expensive, but the truth behind the inflated costs is more insidious than retail pricing. In our current food economy, the harms and risks that arise from industrial agriculture are shifted from the company onto others in order to maximize profits, leading to a corruption of prices. We as a society pay for these harms and risks, not in monetary values when we purchase foods, but rather in our everyday lives. What are these costs or, which economists call externalities? They include health effects, maldistribution of access to healthy food, heavy dependence on chemicals, reliance on low-wage workers, and increased emissions. Therefore we need to internalize the externalities of industrial agriculture in order to reflect the true cost of food and expose the social costs we pay.
The predominant contributor to the corruption of processed, nutrient-deficit food prices is government subsidies. Farmland in the U.S. is shared by a considerably small group of owners due to a decline of small family farms in conjunction with an increase in industrialized farms, leaving a select few big players in the food industry. These few farm owners receive substantial federal subsidies for commodity crops, or crops that can be easily traded because they can be grown in large quantities and stored for long periods of time (corn, wheat, soybean, etc.). The Environmental Working Group estimated that from 1995-2010, 74% of subsidies went to 10% of farm recipients. The result: an overabundance of commodity crops sold for much less than the true cost of production, which in turn lowers the cost of inputs like corn syrup that is then used for high-calorie processed food. This is unreflective of the actual price of processed foods that would in fact be more expensive than healthy foods if it were not for federal support. Though the 2014 Farm Bill eliminated direct subsidies for commodity crops, the federal government still provides incentives through subsidized insurance programs that guarantee farmers to sell their crop above a certain price or to make certain revenue. Subsidized commodity crops also contribute to inexpensive animal feed for industrial livestock farms, which receive subsidies through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help cover the cost of waste management by the standards that the farms themselves set.
The type of food retailers in areas with low-access (and typically low-income) are fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer mostly processed food with little healthy options; continually buying and consuming these types of food with a can lead to health issues like diabetes, heart disease, and other nutrition-related illnesses.
Farms have increasingly developed into large-scale factory farms that rely on monoculture practices. Monoculture practices tend to use more pesticides and fertilizers due to the lack of crop diversity. Pesticide and fertilizer industries are harmful and create social costs from production to application. Chemicals used in the processes of making fertilizers and pesticides cause health and safety risks to not only the workers, but also the communities that surround the facilities through air and water pollution. Additionally, low-wage workers are exposed to dangerous amounts of these chemicals on the field. Large-scale farms are likely to employ undocumented, migrant workers who are often exploited due to their legal status and minimal political representation, leaving them susceptible to environmental health risks. Migrant workers are often exposed to toxic chemicals during and after the application of pesticides, which can lead to severe health issues. Most of these workers are not only underpaid but also uninsured, making it difficult for them to receive care after exposure. In order for migrant workers to be paid a proper wage, the difference in cost per single fruit and vegetable comes down to pennies, however many producers argue that a few cents has an enormous effect in the already competitive market.
Additionally, the production of fertilizers and pesticides, field operations, and long-range transportation involved with industrial agriculture contributes to climate change, as the consumption of fuel from beginning to end is tremendous, emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Some scholars approximate that these agricultural practices account for 25-30% of the U.S. carbon footprint. A study lead by Cornell University’s David Pimentel estimates costs that our society pays for the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides. According to the study, the overuse of the two chemicals combined costs $14.2 billion dollars a year, which does not include the $45 billion annual costs that arises from damage to soil. These numbers do not account for environmental costs of incidents like pollution of drinking water sources, hypoxic zones, and loss of fisheries.
Clearly there are a number of externalities the corrupt the true price of unhealthy, processed food. Instead of paying in stores, we as communities suffer the consequences; all the while big agriculture maximizes profits at the expense of our health, our integrity, and our environment. It is time for us to ask our government to stop subsidizing big agriculture and require corporations to internalize the costs of labor, chemical use, and environmental degradation. Only then will the true costs of food be exposed, and we can begin to fund efforts to make fair, nutritious food more affordable.
by Stephanie Bennett
Stephanie is a recent graduate of Lehigh University,
with a Master’s in Environmental Policy Design.
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)