At last, somewhat authoritative figures on the aggregate costs of cheap food. Will they change anything? You tell me.
“How much is a loaf of bread, then?” – a question to strike terror into the heart of politicians on the stump, especially those from a wealthier background. Even if they know, though, Oscar Wilde applies: they may know its price, but they don’t know its value.
The hidden costs of food production, collectively known as negative externalities, have been a source of conflict for decades. Cheerleaders for cheap food point to the price we pay the shopkeeper. The rest of us point to the costs borne by society in everything from antibiotic resistance to zoonoses. Those costs, however, are hard to quantify.
Thanks, then, to the Rockefeller Foundation. It’s report True Cost of Food: Measuring What Matters to Transform the U.S. Food System …
… outlines the true cost of food, which includes the impacts on our health, the environment, biodiversity, livelihoods, and much more. With this new analysis, governments, advocates, corporations, and individuals are better equipped to catalyze the change needed to develop a truly nourishing, equitable, and sustainable food system in the United States.
I have not read it, yet. But I have read Marion Nestle’s post about it, from which I take one highlight.
The cost of the food system to health alone equals the amount that American consumers spend on food each year: $1.1 trillion.
Overall, the Rockefeller Foundation reckons that externalities triple the cost of food at the checkout.
The UK is currently trying its best to skirt the recommendations of the National Food Strategy it commissioned. That report reckons that the current UK food system contributes to an estimated 64,000 deaths (not to mention less drastic health outcomes) every year in England alone and costs the economy an estimated £74 billion.
By 2035/36, Type 2 diabetes is projected to cost the NHS £15 billion a year, or one and a half times as much as cancer does today. Halting this trajectory is the single biggest thing we can do to protect the future of our health service.
How much more evidence of the true cost of food do governments need?
A good friend sent a link to a strange page indeed from the World Economic Forum: Underwater farms could be a sustainable alternative to farming on land. Pride of place goes to Nemo’s Garden, an exceedingly weird operation that, as my friend Dan noted, looks like “an illustration from an early 1970s children’s book on the the future”. Forgive my skepticism, but I really cannot see “air-filled plastic pods” anchored in shallow water and growing plants hydroponically doing much to provide “a more sustainable alternative to land-based farming”.
Which is a great shame, because the rest of the article is dedicated to what might more reasonably be called actual underwater farming, mostly of seaweeds and some of the animals that live among them. Of course seaweed farms and other forms of aquaculture have their own negative externalities, which some practitioners are beginning to talk about, and if they can be addressed effectively then farming the seas certainly could help to address global hunger sustainably. Nemo’s Garden, I fear, not so much. They are based in Liguria, so I could make myself available for an in-depth fact-finding mission.
Plant health is no laughing matter, although it is a crying shame when it results in the destruction of a crop or, worse, a complete ban on cultivation. I have personal experience of the former, when I tried to bulk up pepino (Solanum muricatum) in the UK, but I had no idea a fruit as wonderful as blackcurrants was once considered so dangerous that it was completely banned in the US. That’s because blackcurrant can be an intermediate host of a deadly fungal disease called white pine blister rust, which was itself imported on pine seedlings, and under pressure from the logging industry Congress banned blackcurrant growing.
Modern Farmer has the whole story, centred on the Hudson Valley farmer who had dedicated the past couple of decades to getting the law overturned, because by now there are fine blackcurrant varieties resistant to blister rusts. Here is some up-to-date information from University of Massachusetts extension.
It’s a terrific tale, and kudos to Greg Quinn for persevering. Knowing how easy blackcurrants are to grow, as long as you beat the birds to the harvest, and how pleasing the bushes are to keep in shape, I found it hard to believe that Americans had been denied these pleasures for so long.
While trying to think of ways to visualise the negative externalities of food, I naturally thought of icebergs and tips. Then I remembered that the classic picture of the tip of an iceberg is extremely wrong. In response, Joshua Tauberer created a rather clever thing that shows you how a very simple model of any shaped iceberg would float in the water. It is brilliant. Nothing to do with food, but brilliant. You need to play with it.
Take care and stay safe.
p.s. I might think Nemo’s Garden is whacky, but I’m not above using their photo.