While traveling with a friend a few weeks ago, I bemoaned the lack of good organic food in airports and restaurants in many areas of the US. I wasn’t happy that my travel schedule took me away from my diet of fresh organic vegetables, grains and proteins. Even while I work for more organic food consumption, I can’t always achieve it in my work schedule. My travel companion questioned my approach to food and challenged me that I might be an elitist, because some mothers and families just can’t “afford” to buy organic food. This led me to ask what the real costs of food are and to discover the hidden costs concealed in non-organic foods.
Cheap food produced in monoculture settings is often sprayed with an arsenal of chemicals with the sole goal of producing profits. The long term ramifications are often not accounted for at the supermarket but are certainly paid for later. If we take the time to look at these hidden costs, we will be able to explain why organic is the best value in the long run.
The latest data from the EPA is from 2007 and indicates that the US used 531 million pounds of Herbicides, 93 million pounds of insecticides, 70 million pounds of fungicides and 439 million pounds of other miscellaneous chemicals that year. Our combined usage of these chemical represented 22% of the total world market! These noxious materials are ending up in our streams and waters. Check out my Blog “Don’t drink the water” to learn more. We spend millions of dollars cleaning our water to make it suitable to drink, and yet there is still atrazine and glyphosate present. Did I mention the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was the biggest on record last year? What is the price of lost fishing revenue to the people in the Gulf?
Those chemicals are killing bees by the millions and reducing the habitat of our butterflies. The cost of honeybee colony collapse can be seen in the increased price of fruits like almonds and oranges. What will the cost be when there are fewer and fewer honeybees to pollinate our favorite foods?
Conventional agriculture results in a decline in soil productivity due to wind and water erosion of exposed topsoil. This is caused by soil compaction, loss of organic matter, decreased water holding capacity and depleted biological activity. Soils become heavily degraded by irrigation and overgrazing and cause desertification, especially in developing areas. Studies from the Rodale Institute show organic methods really do provide better productivity by nurturing soil health. Healthy topsoil has the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms and is where most of the Earth’s biological soil activity occurs. An inch of the stuff takes 500 years to occur naturally. Meanwhile, the United States alone loses almost three tons of topsoil per acre per year through mismanagement. How much will food cost for our children’s children without enough healthy soil to grow it?
Glyphosate’s, the active ingredient in Roundup, use in the US has skyrocketed due to GMO herbicide resistant crops. Residues are commonly found in conventional foods comprised of sugar, corn, soy and wheat. A recent review of studies concluded that diseases, such as gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, may be a result of how this chemical affects the human body. Our children may be at even more risk, as a report from The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded. You can read more in my previous blog “Is buying organic produce for your kids worth it?” The Committee emphasized that pregnant women and unborn children, as well as infants and children, are much more vulnerable to possibly life-long adverse impacts from even very low pesticide exposures.
Have you been to the doctor lately? The cost of health care is skyrocketing as we get sicker from eating toxic residues and drinking polluted water.
When the ultimate goal of producing our food is for profit, people often get left out of the equation. A study from CDPH highlights the occupational affects and illnesses in farm workers caused by pesticides. Farm-worker illnesses most commonly involved dermatologic symptoms, nervous system disorders, gastrointestinal and respiratory issues. These illnesses drive up the cost of health insurance, cost the farmers in loss of productivity and, ultimately, affect the quality of life of millions of people working on farms.
Conventional agriculture in developing countries can have devastating effects on indigenous people. The destruction of tropical forests and other native vegetation for agricultural production has taken a toll on the traditional ways of life for millions. Mono-cropping and land grabs threaten to reduce the ability of indigenous people to produce and gather food. It can thrust them into planation like settings, where they become virtual slaves of the agriculture system. The cultural cost is incalculable but nevertheless enormous.
It is clear that when you buy organically produced food you are paying up front for a safer, cleaner and more just product. Choosing the cheap way out by buying conventional will only result in higher health costs and a degraded world which, in the end, we pay for tenfold. These costs will likely be passed onto future generations in the form of global warming and persistent health and environmental concerns. I place my food dollar in the pay it forward model. Spend your money on the good food choice and you won’t be wasting a penny! Then tell a friend.