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The True Cost of Food

By Sam Fisher

Most of us attach value to product that closely parallels with the product’s price tag. To be sure, there are always name brands where you essentially pay for the name, such as Nike shoes. And on the other hand, there are store-brand products that are known to be “value priced” but are usually on the low end of the quality chain. However, one of the only markets where we Americans do not connect price to real-life value is food. Generally speaking, we expect food to be cheap in relation to the rest of life’s necessities. This expectation reflects the aspiration of food manufacturers, retailers, and agricultural policy makers have had for several decades. Even members of the agricultural community – who take the brunt of depressed commodity prices – pride themselves in the fact that as a nation, we spend the lowest percentage of our disposable income on food, compared to other places in the world.

A recent editorial in our local weekly agricultural newspaper bragged on the fact that we only spend an average of 6.5% of our disposable income on food, of course portraying it as human cleverness for developing such an efficient agricultural system. That may be an achievement looking at that statistic by itself, but in reality it isn’t a stand-alone statistic because it connects with so many other factors. For example, what does our national healthcare budget look like? It’s one of the highest in the world. Plus, five percent of the tax dollar is invested in food and agriculture, which essentially boils down to the farm bill, the bulk of which are direct subsidies paid to farmers and ranchers to make up for low commodity prices vital for keeping retail prices “affordable” in the supermarket.

Speaking of tax dollars, 26.5% of federal tax monies go to healthcare subsidiaries, such as Medicare, which is over and above the seen costs of medical care. However, the biggest subsidies are not direct payments to farmers or medical establishments, they are the tab society picks up for externalized costs. The cost of 500,000 cases of diarrhea Americans will get this year from dirty, adulterated food. The cost of the Rhode Island-sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides leaching from farmland into the Mississippi River. The cost of a food system that has tentacles reaching all the way to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, and is defended by our national military. The cost of three-legged salamanders and infertile frogs. Or the cost of increasing atmospheric carbon and the research being done to remedy it. Plus, the collateral damage from concentrated animal feeding operations, pesticides, herbicides, and toxic manure lagoons has not even begun to be tabulated. It may be decades, if not centuries, before the true costs of this abnormal food system are tallied. If all these costs were added to the supermarket cash register, I can guarantee food would not be as cheap as it is. Until then, we all will continue to pick up the tab.

Clean, unprocessed food from ecological, environmentally-friendly farms just might be the cheapest food on the planet, because all the costs are figured in. It’s not a price charade. And that’s the View from the Country.

“The secret to change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but building the new.”

~ Socrates

Sam fisher is a farmer with his wife at Freedom Acres Farm in Honey Brook, PA. He can be reached at