Saturday, August 22, 2009

Time Magazine Cover Story: Real Cost of Cheap Food

This week Time magazine gives cover-story prominence to an issue I feel strongly about: namely, that the industrial-scale cheap food we have become accustomed to comes at too high a price and is not sustainable. The article notes:
The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans.
Price subsidies for commodity crops result in price-per-calorie dysfunction like these examples provided in the article. One dollar can buy:
  • 1,200 calories of potato chips
  • 875 calories of soda
  • 250 calories of vegetables
  • 170 calories of fresh fruit
The fruit and vegetables are still the nutritional bargain here, but people get fuller faster (and fatter) eating the cheap calories.

When we enjoy a cheap hamburger from animals finished on grain in high-density feedlots, or bargain-price pork or chicken where thousands of animals are raised together in close proximity, we are getting that cheap meat at the cost of:
  • a horrendous (at the very least, a most unnatural and crowded) quality of life for the animals
  • routine antibiotic use to prevent control disease in such unnaturally large concentrations of animals
  • pollution from the huge quantities of waste produced in such concentrated areas
  • increased chances for food contamination from large, high-speed processing plants
  • increased use of petroleum-based fertilizers to grow the endless monocultures of cheap corn to feed the animals
  • our own health and enjoyment of the food (did you know, for example, that the fats in grass-fed beef and dairy products - such as humans have been eating for thousands of years until the last several decades - are considerably better for us than the fats from grain-fed cattle?)
Bon Appetit food services company (which manages the dining programs at both St. Olaf and Carleton colleges here in Northfield and relies heavily on local, sustainable producers), Niman Ranch beef, and Chipotle restaurants are highlighted as examples of how to take a different, healthier, more sustainable approach in large-scale food production. Our own nearby Thousand Hills Cattle Company is a premium source of grass-fed beef; you can find their meat at Just Food and other area co-ops, and I believe I even saw some at EconoFoods recently.

I encourage you to read the article, which concludes:
The industrial food system fills us up but leaves us empty — it's based on selective forgetting. But what we eat — how it's raised and how it gets to us — has consequences that can't be ignored any longer.

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