Adding up the true cost of food

True cost of food graphic
Courtesy Sierra Club Sustainable Consumption Committee


A Sierra Club Report

American Agribusiness trumpets that we are the best-fed nation in history.  And it is spreading the message worldwide with an "affordable" diet of ever more fast-food joints and hundred-acre food marts. Megabuck advertising industry supermodels make it look simply glorious on TV. Countries everywhere are scrambling to sign up.

What’s wrong with this picture?

We might start with the THREE Earths it would take to support the whole world eating the American way.  Many astronomers believe the nearest totally Earthlike planet (not even close to being found) is on the order of 500,000,000,000,000 miles away, if not a lot farther.   (At the speed of light it would only take 100 years to get there.)  And who even wants to live on another planet?

There’s got to be a better way.

Enter the Sierra Club’s “True Cost of Food” campaign plus video, brought to you by your national Sustainable Consumption Committee.

But first – why does our diet have such an impact?  Basically, it’s because the food industry has found it enormously profitable to flood both our markets and our senses with cheap, seemingly delicious food, regardless of the long-term cost to our environment and our health.  The result is a diet that’s:

  • Pesticide, chemical, hormone, or antibiotic laden, often all four together.
  • 60% animal products, largely the most unnatural, unhealthy, cholesterol-loaded type.
  • Super-processed to appeal to the blandest palate through removal of any natural taste or nutritional value.
  • Shipped thousands of miles, often around the world, to bolster (subsidized) corporate bottom lines.

One quick look at the above should explain America’s dietary disaster, of which our obesity epidemic is just the most obvious symptom.

We are literally eating ourselves to death.  Worse, far worse is this: Corporate food behemoths, abetted by the government and the WTO, are stuffing this model down the gullets of the rest of the world.  They are doing everything possible to get the whole world to eat – not just itself to death – but the biosphere as well, and quickly.

Consider these environmental consequences:

  • Our industrialized one-crop farming poisons the soil, encourages pests, and destroys biodiversity.
  • “Chemical” agriculture is far and away the number one water polluter in the U.S.
  • Half of the U.S. land surface is dedicated to cows or their feed.
  • We need FIVE times as much land per person for a U.S. animal based diet than for the more plant-centered diet of developing countries.
  • Subsidized, worldwide shipping of food stokes global warming.  And it destroys local economies along with the small farmers who are the best stewards of the land.
  • CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations – read “cheap” meat) are America’s foulest local polluters and wreak horrific cruelty on animals. (You don’t want to know the details – trust us.)

Feeling a little queasy at this point?  Can’t say we blame you.  But thanks to our “True Cost of Food” campaign, there’s plenty you can do about it while having fun and camaraderie in the process:

Here’s our basic message: For the environment – and for your own health – shift your food consumption toward:

1. More plant-based
2. More organic
3. More locally-grown

There’s absolutely nothing doctrinaire here. We’re not saying do all or nothing, simply that the more of the above the better.  Even a little of the above can make a big difference.  The Union of Concerned Scientists states that our food choices are one of the two biggest ways we can help the environment. (The other is our transportation choices.)

For more information from the Sierra Club Sustainable Consumption Committee , visit their website. For information about getting involved in this important campaign, see the True Cost of Food Campaign in Pennsylvania.

Published May 2005