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Tallying Hidden Costs Of Industrial Food

Economists and environmental scientists are adding up unseen costs connected to industrial agriculture.

Photo: USDA / Lance Cheung (flickr)

A tractor turns a cover crop to replenish nutrients and stave off erosion on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the erosion rate on more than half of America's crop land is 27 times the natural rate, or 11,000 pounds per acre.

Price Check

Those conventionally-grown bargain yams are not as cheap as you might think. Industrial farming imposes hidden costs, like fuel burned in the making of chemical fertilizers, taxes that pay for government subsidies and topsoil lost in runoff, not to mention the bills to clean up chemical pollution.

Supermarket prices don’t include extra fees to cover these costs, but shoppers ultimately pay through taxes, health care costs and a host of other concealed charges.

This year a group of economists, scientists and policymakers in in the U.S. and Europe has been brainstorming ways to count up the total price tag of large-scale industrial farming. The Sustainable Food Trust, a U.K.-based environmental nonprofit, hosted a forum this month in London to help do the math.

Aine Morris, the head of communications for the Sustainable Food Trust, said that without a complete picture of these costs, consumers and legislators are more likely to support the status quo. She said a “true accounting” should highlight not only the added quantifiable costs, but immeasurable losses like biodiversity.

“What about a complete lack of vibrant rural communities?” she said. “What about the cost of intangible social and cultural benefits – of well being that comes from doing meaningful work which attaches people to a sense of land and territory and identity and an idea of where they come from?”

Counting the Beans

Figuring out the actual costs of food items turns out to be pretty tricky. There are many subjective factors in play, and even quantifiable costs like the value of topsoil are still up for debate.

Figuring out the actual costs of food items turns out to be pretty tricky. There are many subjective factors in play, and even quantifiable costs like the value of topsoil are still up for debate.

Ian Bateman, a professor of environmental science at the the University of East Anglia, has taken a crack at it. “The Integrated Model,” nicknamed TIM, uses a series of statistical models to compare the market value of food items to things like the established costs of greenhouse gas emissions and measurable declines in water quality.

He said models like his are critical tools for demonstrating the real-world impact of unsustainable farming to policymakers.

“There is only one way to effectively ensure this,” he said in an email interview. “Translate the impacts of land use into the same units that decision makers use every day — economic values.”

Using the TIM models, Bateman has been able to project snapshots of imaginary food systems without any subsidies or regulation, where costs reflect only free market values. The environmental and other “beyond-market” costs in that scenario increase dramatically. Those results can be compared to projections under more sustainable systems.

With global food prices set to rise up to 40 percent by 2020, and a quarter of the world’s crops growing in water-starved areas, conventional farming appears to be headed for crisis. With “true accounting” models like TIM, activists hope to show policymakers that food that’s grown with sustainable techniques are actually cheaper than resource-intensive counterparts.

Read More:

  • Needed: True Cost Accounting of Producing Food (FoodTank)
  • Sustainable Food Trust Convenes True Cost of Food & Farming Conference (Civil Eats)
Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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