The hidden cost of seemingly cheap food production is damaging the planet, driving human disease and jeopardizing food workers exposed to toxins every day. Experts who gathered at the True Cost of American Food conference in San Francisco this past weekend said for every dollar American consumers pay for food, the country is spending up to two dollars to fight diseases linked to poor food production, worker abuse and environmental harms.
"The bill consumers pay at the grocery checkout does not reflect the true cost Americans are actually paying for food," said Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust. "We have to recognize this before we can do a better job growing our food, educating society to make informed decisions and incentivizing farmers and sustainable practices – and thereby save both lives and money."
One promising solution is a new cost assessment model that monetizes the environmental and social costs and benefits of a farming system, announced Harpinder Sandhu, environmental scientist at Flinders University, Australia and an expert at the United Nations Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Sandhu measures each farming system's inputs and outputs, including the environmental and social impacts of the system. He tracks this natural capital's effect on the balance sheet using a valuation framework developed in collaboration with the UN-led Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture project. After he quantifies and prices these impacts, he can add or subtract them from the prices in standard accounting, which normally only reflects food sales. His approach produces a more accurate picture of the financial impact of a different farming system.
"Information we learned from farms in this study made it possible not only to avoid damage to the environment, but deliver positive benefits, including more on-farm employment, greater biodiversity and increased soil carbon – all of which have monetary value," Sandhu said. "When these benefits are included, farm products present better value to society as a whole than the so-called cheap beef and milk from feedlot systems, which isn't really cheap at all."
Experts at the conference called for more studies that further establish true-cost accounting practices and policies to inform consumers on the true cost of food and establish better farming policies and incentives.
Conference experts also identified concrete changes that would lead to more sustainable food production. The short video, A Tale of Two Chickens, highlights six ways we can change our current food systems to ensure the hidden costs of cheap food are addressed and eliminated, including the following.
1. Buy sustainably raised food to reward food producers that benefit the environment and improve public health.
2. Create policies that link farm bill subsidies, crop insurance and food stamps to encourage more sustainable farming and food products, which can increase access to good food for all.
3. Tax fertilizers and pesticides to encourage farmers to reduce their use and adopt more carbon-friendly soil practices.
4. Incentivize health insurance customers who follow healthier diets.
5. Encourage investment in community-based sustainable businesses.
6. Pay farm and food workers a living wage and give them safer working conditions.
The conference concluded with a clear call to action to better understand the cost of industrialized food production and to apply the six practices identified in the video now.
SOURCE Sustainable Food Trust