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Costs of Industrial Agriculture: Re-pricing the Dollar Menu

Marvel at our supposedly cheap food in the US.  It is, as a study from the Pew Institute points out, an impressive illusion:

This “illusion” is made possible by “cheap grain, cheap water and prison-like confinement systems.” Underpinning this status is the drive for the lowest possible labor costs–meaning automated feeding, watering, and waste disposal is the norm–which undermines and impoverishes traditional, family and small farm operations (farms which are typically bought out by corporate farming conglomerates, who then receive  the lion’s share of subsidies; about half a trillion since 2001).

If you factor in those subsidies, as well as the external costs of our current agricultural model, a dollar-menu burger from McDonald’s isn’t so cheap after all. In fact, our input-intensive agriculture (ie, heavy on synthetic fertilizer, pesticide, mechanized equipment and soil-eroding irrigation practices) has enormous costs that our current economic model simply doesn’t consider.

A study by Erin Tegtmeier and Michael Duffy – "External Costs of Agricultural Production in the United States"-concluded that "agricultural production in the US negatively impacts water, soil, air, wildlife and human health at an estimated cost of $5.7 – $16.9 billion a year." The recent swine flu outbreak may be a taste of a much larger tab not considered in those numbers:

This causes another problem: the creation of  “super germs”–anti-biotic resistant bacteria/viruses–that, due to their reproductive cycles and gene sharing abilities,  become ever-more-resilient, and more lethal (and can spread to the general population).

It’s easy to take shots at the organic food movement for being a status symbol for the upper-middle class. There’s no denying that buying organic demands a certain level of affluence. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we begin to factor in these external costs, if we reallocate government subsidies to promote organic foods instead of industrialized foods, we can make the cheap food the good food.

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Lance Steagall

Lance Steagall