The Hidden Costs of Food

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

Photo Sarah Whiting

I walk around my local market, debating what I need and what I want, and how much it will cut into my resources. Can I afford these organic strawberries this week? Should I buy apples cheaper from the grocery store, or sacrifice my budget and get them from a vendor at the farmer’s market?

Before food even gets into our shopping basket and into our mouths, there are other costs involved. The true cost of food is three times what the U.S. consumer pays — which is $1.1 billion annually — when we include the impact on the environment and public health, according to a new report from the Rockefeller Foundation.

As the Washington Post reported in July: “Health impacts are the biggest hidden cost of the food system, with more than $1 trillion per year in health-related costs paid by Americans, with an estimated $604 billion of that attributable to diseases — such as hypertension, cancer and diabetes — linked to diet. … If U.S. rates of diet-related diseases were reduced to similar rates in countries like Canada, health-care costs could be reduced by $250 billion per year.”

The story also noted that if agricultural greenhouse gas emissions were lowered to preindustrial levels, $100 billion could be saved in environmental costs.

The term “true cost accounting” (TCA) was coined by Christy Brown in 2013. It is a framework that takes into account the entire lifecycle of food production and its effects, from fertilizer pollution to the wellbeing of restaurant workers.

This holistic and global analysis is explained and examined in the book “True Cost Accounting for Food: Balancing the Scale,” edited by Barbara Gemmill-Herren, Lauren E. Baker, and Paula A. Daniels.

The book contains articles written by experts across multiple disciplines, focusing on the hidden costs of different aspects of food systems, such as “the diversion of water from rivers; the extraction of nutrients from soil; the discharge of pollutants to air and water; the exaction of labor to grow, manage, pick, and package; [and] the release of carbon dioxide to transport and deliver.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “If food wastage was a country, it would represent the third largest [carbon dioxide] emitting country in the world.”

The book includes the article “The Hidden Costs of Industrial Food Systems,” which describes five channels of impact for agricultural and food production systems: occupational hazards, environmental contamination, unsafe foods, unhealthy dietary patterns, and food insecurity. The authors point out that “market failure is being compounded by policy failure.”

Toxic chemicals cause health problems for agricultural workers and their families. The biggest risks and dangers of these systems are to vulnerable groups, which tend to be under-documented and therefore not prioritized. Migrant workers and other precariously employed workers, including women and children, “are less likely to report injuries and illnesses for fear of termination or victimization, or for lack of knowledge of their right to medical services.”

In “Transforming the Maize Treadmill,” a case study in Minnesota compared the production of organic corn to that of genetically modified (GM) corn. The study found that the “net returns for farmers are higher in organic corn systems.” The cost of chemicals and the lower price for non-organic corn decrease the net return for GM corn, even though total GM corn yield is higher.

The authors denote leverage that can be used to change the system. They suggest taxes on processes that cause negative environmental effects, bans on toxic substances, and subsidies for producing healthy foods.

Action Steps

“Incentives to Change: The Experience of the Organic Sector” describes positive changes. Switzerland’s subsidies for compliant farmers increased the country’s organic farming to 15 percent of the total agricultural land. Denmark’s pesticide tax reduced the use of pesticides by over 40 percent in less than a decade.

In “Harmonizing the Measurement of On-Farm Impacts,” the authors write:

“Owing to the failure to place a value on the

impacts associated with food and farming systems, those that degrade natural, social, and human capital are more profitable than their sustainable equivalents.”

I know firsthand about the difficulties of the organic certification process. My parents have a small organic farm. Although they follow guidelines for sustainable and organic production, they have not gone through the certification. Certification costs may range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, plus an application fee, an annual renewal fee, an assessment on annual production or sales, and inspection fees. Application deadlines for certification are at the end of September, right in the middle of a busy harvest season. Without organic certification, small operations like my parents’ farm cannot label and price their products as organic.

If you are confused by all of these considerations, you are not alone. TCA is a new tool by researchers and policymakers that is trying to make the public understanding of these systems both simpler and more comprehensive.

Something has to change in the way that modern society produces and consumes food. We can effect change by holding food producers accountable for the full result of their actions, from the health of their labor force to the pollution they dispose.

In Amsterdam, the True Price store is trying to lead by example. Since 2019, customers see the true prices of various food products and pay for them, and the businesses in the store work to minimize the external costs of their products.

To support companies and groups that are trying to reduce the negative effects of food systems, we can:

  • buy organic produce, especially from small family farms;
  • splurge on chocolate that has been Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certified;
  • eat at restaurants that source from local and/or organic producers and that pay their employees a living wage with benefits. 

If we cannot afford to buy sustainable products, we can eat seasonally. Buying seasonal produce, such as from an organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business, can significantly decrease the price. I buy zucchini in August, tomatoes in September, and apples and pumpkins in October. I ask farmer’s market vendors if they have seconds available, which are imperfect produce sold at a bulk discount. I can freeze or can them to last all year. 

In the essay “True Cost Principles in Public Policy,” the author writes that municipal governments have a bigger impact than federal governments on public food policies. This includes school food programs and promotion of farmer’s markets. If you want to get involved on a higher level, check your local government to see if they have a food council, and how food policy is determined and enacted. The City of Minneapolis has signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact and is currently developing a Food Action Plan through discussions with the community. 

If you have the power to purchase food for your institution, check out the Good Food Purchasing Program for guidelines on how to use your budget to make a positive impact. 

Here is a list of sustainable and ethical food certifications to look for at the store. 

Demetria Dickinson (she/they) has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. She is a freelance science writer who lives in Minneapolis and grows tomatoes on her balcony. 

Related Reading

From the #FoodTank coverage of the UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow (November 2021):