Man and woman tip bags of chips in mouths in store.

I found myself on a plane to mingle and speak at the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association  (INFFRA) conference in Minnesota. As the great desert gave way to the patchwork of Midwestern fields, I was awed by the amount of food being produced beneath me.

The vast quantity of land and resources we have concentrated in this central breadbasket provides an abundance of inexpensive food.

In some ways, our food has never been so cheap, and in other ways, it has never been so expensive.

A dozen eggs for $2.99 or pork loin at $.99 per pound. Cupcakes, burgers, pizzas, and fries, they feed our innate hunger for salt, fat, and sugar combined. All we can eat for a lot less than just fifty years ago.

As a result, rising levels of severe obesity mean that we are on the brink of a catastrophic epidemic of diabetes, according to Lancet’s 2017 report.

It’s time we uncovered the true cost of cheap food hidden in unexpected consequences with very real costs we pay later.​

Agrochemicals assault the environment.

Consider the Iowa farmer making ritual passes with his mighty tractor, doggedly spraying herbicides and pesticides to combat weeds, disease, and pests. The seeds he uses are likely bio-engineered to stand up to these chemical onslaughts with an unholy tenacity.

The chemicals seep into the soil and run off with the rains into streams, rivers, and oceans.

The drinking water in these parts must be treated to keep the contaminants at the minimum safety levels for human consumption. Local water districts can’t keep up with the costs to clean it all up.

Nitrates from fertilizers and Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOS) do the same, creating massive oxygen-starved dead zones in gulfs and lakes.

The Des Moines Register reported on a University of Iowa study; it shows that Iowa’s nitrogen pollution in the water is getting worse, not better. High phosphorus levels lead to toxic algae blooms that can befoul lakes, rivers, and streams, potentially killing pets and making people ill.

Oxygen levels in the Gulf’s dead zone are so low that marine life can no longer survive, costing the Gulf’s seafood industry and community dearly.​

The neighbors pay dearly in air quality

The landscape is dotted with confined animal feeding operations or CAFO’s. Here animals suffer in factory conditions to produce cheap meat for our hot dogs, eggs, and chick fillets.

The byproducts they produce swell and steep into cauldrons of noxious fumes one can smell for miles away. The pollutants enter the air creating respiratory infection and disease.

A North Carolina couple was awarded damages from hog producer Smithfield Foods because of the dangerous stench their CAFO’s produced in the eastern part of the state.

Locals pay in medical bills and shortened unhealthy lives if they live next to one of these.

And the animals suffer.

Food workers toil in dangerous conditions earning very little for their work

Meat plant workers must cut, slice, de-bone, and pack at ever-increasing speeds. Suffering injuries from monotony or the blade—this is one of the most dangerous professions of all.

The Guardian reported that “Amputations, fractured fingers, second-degree burns, and head trauma are just some of the serious injuries suffered by US meat plant workers every week.”

These workers pay with their health, and we pay in ever-increasing insurance premiums.

Consider the waitress at the local diner serving forth breakfast. She exists on the tips and scraps from her patrons, barely able to make ends meet. Ironically, she who serves our food can only afford it for her family with the help of nutritional assistance.

Your taxes subsidize the hidden cost of cheap food.

The low-wage food workers’ food stamps come directly from federal taxes.

The large swaths of corn and soybeans are but commodities whose prices decline steadily with occasional ten-year bumps. The farmer can barely make a living doing it but knows no other way.

A portion of our federal taxes prop up these farmers and their monoculture crops each year with federal subsidies.

Your weekly paycheck supports the cheap food myth.

The cost of conventional monoculture agriculture will be paid by future generations.

Conventional mono-crop agriculture is degrading the very top soil we rely on to produce our food.

Scientific America reported that

“If current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said…”

As soil fertility declines so does its ability to draw carbon from the environment.

If our soils diminish how will future generations produce their food?

Birds, fish, and pollinators are vanishing at an alarming rate across the globe. Conventional agriculture is hastening this Sixth Extinction.

What world will we leave our children as this extinction ensues?

They will ultimately pay the highest price.

Organic is the answer to this dire situation.

Organic food production can mitigate many of these issues. It’s written into the USDA definition:

“Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.”

Animal welfare, non-toxic inputs, soil fertility, and respect for biodiversity are all part of organic food production.

Research by Northeastern University and The Organic Center proves organic agriculture keeps more carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere, helping mitigate the effects of climate change.

Paying more and buying organic is an important step in supporting the real cost of producing healthy sustainable food.

The other solution is perhaps more important. The very root of most of our food evils is the fact that the average consumer doesn’t think about the real cost of food.

Educating people on the costs they will eventually pay in taxes, insurance premiums, quality of life, and health is the most important task we can undertake if we are to challenge the unhealthy paradigm of cheap food.

Buy organic, promote its benefits, and educate others on the real price of cheap food.

We just can’t afford cheap food any longer.

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About The Author

Melody Meyer's picture

Melody is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). In this role she is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical organic issues. Her Blog covers a range of organic and sustainable food issues.

She is the executive director of the UNFI Foundation which is dedicated to funding non-profit organizations that promote organic agriculture Melody serves as Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association

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