Prices and the life exchanged:
Costs of the U.S. food system

You may know the price of your food at the supermarket, but do you know its true costs? Do you know how much topsoil was sacrificed or how many family farmers were forced off the land? Such costs are not fully included in the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. But, according to the following essay by David Orr of Oberlin College, they are costs that future generations will have to pay.

This essay is excerpted from an address Orr made at a symposium organized in 1991 by the Institute for Alternative Agriculture in Washington, DC, on the topic, "Understanding the True Cost of Food: Considerations for a Sustainable Food System."

By David W. Orr

"The cost of a thing," Thoreau once wrote, "is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." Thoreau knew what many have yet to discover: the difference between price and cost. Prices, what we pay at the checkout counter, are specific and countable. Costs, on the other hand, include: (1) things of value which cannot be measured in numbers; (2) costs which could be measured but which we choose to ignore; and (3) the loss of things that we did not know to be important until they were gone.

Americans, we are proudly informed, pay less than 15 percent of their disposable income on food, compared to the 23.8 percent that Europeans pay. But this figure clearly does not represent the true costs of supplying food.

Another of my favorite economists, Will Rogers, once said that "It ain't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't right." What "we know that ain't right" about the price of food is the source of a great deal of trouble with worse yet to come. The prices we pay for food do not reflect the life we exchange for it or that which we will subsequently forfeit. This is so, in large measure, because lifebiotic resources and the health of rural communities essential to a healthy agriculture and cultureis not included in our present accounting system which, instead, tends to regard these "factors of production" as if they are replaceable as worn-out machines.

The practice of ignoring the difference between price and true cost is the stuff out of which historians write epitaphs for whole civilizations. The difference between price and cost is also a matter of honesty and fairness between those who benefit and those who, sooner or later, are required to pay. One effect of not paying full costs is that we fool ourselves into thinking that we are much richer than we really are.

Prices that do not "tell the truth," in Amory Lovins' words, eventually lure us (or our children) toward bankruptcy. But the truth that needs to be told cannot be spoken only or even primarily in the language and with the numbers of economics alone. It must be told in the language of ecology, culture, and politics.

What are the true costs of the U.S. food system? I would like to suggest six kinds of costs that are not reflected in prices.

Damage to natural systems

The first and most discussed are costs resulting from damage to natural systems that accompany conventional food production. Average soil erosion rates in the United States are estimated to be 7.1 tons per acre/year, which is 14 times faster than soil is created.Cornell University scientist David Pimentel estimates that soil erosion and associated water runoff cost the United States $44 billion annually.

Waste of both surface and ground water costs billions of dollars more, if one considers water overdrafts, land subsidence, soil salinization, and public subsidies for Western water. Pesticides, for which farmers spend $4 billion annually, are estimated to cause $2-4 billion in health and environmental damages, including an estimated 20,000 cases of pesticide-caused cancer each year.

Five billion livestock in the United States produce some 41.8 billion tons of manure each year, half of which is wasted, becoming a source of pollution for ground water and streams. Agriculture has become progressively more dependent on fossil fuels at an uncalculated cost to the environment from the extraction, processing, transport, and combustion.

Food packaging is another source of environmental costs. One-third of the solid waste stream is food packaging.

David Pimentel estimates that the total unpriced costs of the U.S. food system fall between $150-200 billion dollars per year. A recent study by economists at the World Resources Institute similarly shows that "where everything relevant [is counted], the traditional accounting method's $80-per-acre profit becomes a $26-per-acre loss."

Loss of rural communities

A second unpriced cost of the U.S. food system is the loss of farms and rural communities. In 1915, Liberty Hyde Bailey questioned "whether the race can permanently endure urban life, or whether it must be constantly renewed from the vitalities in the rear." The loss of rural communities, he said, meant a loss of men and women who were "serious and steady," and who knew "the value of every hour and of every coin that they earn," and above all the loss of people that "whenever they are properly trained...recognize the holiness of the earth."

Barring a serious national commitment to foster reruralization, the experiment is now nearly complete. And I know of no reason to believe that Bailey exaggerated the results of a culture without much rural vitality. Census data show that America is now overwhelmingly an urban nation with 77.5 percent living in metropolitan areas and 50.2 percent living in large metropolitan areas. These figures contrast with Gallup poll data in which 56 percent of Americans indicate that they would prefer living in small towns (34 percent) or on farms (22 percent).

The lack of any serious national policy to build and sustain rural economies means that economic opportunities are fast disappearing in rural areas. Efficiency improvements in agricultural production have steadily reduced the number of farmers from a high of 6.8 million in the 1930s to perhaps fewer than 2 million in 1991. Each farm failure means a loss of three to five rural jobs. The loss of six farms means one failed rural business. One study shows that communities that are predominantly agricultural lost nearly six percent of their population between 1969 and 1986. Such areas now have higher poverty rates (17 percent) than do urban areas (9 percent).

I think it is a mistake, however, to regard such losses as merely economic. They are, as Bailey proposed, a loss of a way of life and of the cultural vitalities that come from diversity and from the disciplines of rural life and farming. We are losing, with barely a whimper, the cultural diversityspecial skills, products, cuisine, and traditionsthat made small towns and rural areas distinctive. Against the proud march of the homogeneous metropolitan economy, is this sense of loss simply nostalgia? Jacquetta Hawkes, in her classic book A Land, answered the question in these words:

"It would be sentimental blindness of another kind to ignore the significance of its [distinctive rural cultures and economies] achievementthe unfaltering fitness and beauty of everything men made from the land they had inherited."

Along with the loss of a vital rural culture, we are losing the ecological basis on which a rural culture must depend. Rural America is under assault from those who see it as only a place to dump urban refuse and toxics, to "recreate," and to speculate. Acid rain and changing climate will only accelerate the destruction.

Loss of intelligence about the land

There is a related loss that is even harder to measure: the loss of the sort of intelligence about the land that once resulted from the close contact with soils, animals, wildlife, forests, and the seasons fostered by farming and rural living. For all of their environmental destructiveness, farms have been in large part where Americans were instructed in the realities of nature. To be sure, the lessons were incompletely learned, and sometimes they were not learned at all. But when they were learned and practiced as a kind of craftwork, great intelligence was evident; and, I think, great satisfactions resulted from a collective effort "to fit close and ever closer" into the land. Jacquetta Hawkes describes this process as a "patient and increasingly skillful love-making that had persuaded the land to flourish."

We no longer see agriculture as a kind of love-making, but rather as an act of domination to force ever higher yields from the land. Whatever the gains in "productivity," I think we are a less intelligent society than we otherwise might have been. I am, of course, making a distinction between intelligence that is long term and has to do with whole systems, and cleverness, which is short term and deals in fragments.

What Gene Logsdon calls "traditional agriculture" stretched and multiplied the intelligence of those who did it well. They had to know a fair amount about a great many things: animal husbandry, soil science, non-chemical ways to control bugs and weeds, crop rotations, wood lot management, timber frame construction, mechanics, and even the weather. Good farmers of the old school were good naturalists who knew their places well and knew how to use them well. They are still the best model we have for what is now called "sustainable farming." Moreover, they had to be, in the main, good neighbors and community members. Some of those who still fit this description have learned how to use the sun to dry crops and heat livestock shelters. A few are relearning how to harness the wind. And a handful are way out in front of the society by learning how to power their farms with solar generated hydrogen fuels.

The kind of intelligence evident in good "traditional farming" is in inverse proportion to the amount of purchased "inputs." It is the result of the kind of mind that is willing to be instructed by a place and all that is part of it. Gretel Ehrlich has described the process in these words:

Once we understand where and why life occurs and how to stop destroying it, a mindfulness about everything spreads. The land tells us what it needs and when; we just have to be awake, to listen, and to scrutinize the ground...a ranch [or farm] is a teacher.

In traditional farming communities, information is passed from generation to generation and is woven into the culture of the region. It is decidedly not the monopoly of a separate caste of farm "experts," or "researchers," who mostly live in another place and occupy another mindscape. For the loss of farms as places of instruction and as a source of practical and ecological competence, I know of no good substitute.

Concentrations of wealth and power

There is a fourth cost of the U.S. food system that also defies easy economic calculation. This is the increasing concentration of wealth and power as agriculture and food processing and distribution have become big business. One effect of concentration is that land is being priced beyond the means of those who must pay for it by farming it. Another is that the foods we eat are the product of industrial processes described by longer and longer labels listing chemical additives and ingredients.

Concentration throughout the food system also means that formerly self-reliant rural communities, consisting of owner-operated farms and local markets, have lost control over their economies. Taxes, land grant university research agendas, and public policies have combined to favor concentration of ownership, suppliers, banks, processors, speculators, and large-scale corporate farming. Jefferson's dream of rural life is rapidly disappearing and with it, in Wendell Berry's words:

the idea that as many as possible should share in the ownership of the land and thus be bound to it by economic enterprise, by investment of love and work, by family loyalty, by memory and tradition.

We do not know whether democracy can long survive without widely dispersed control of rural land and resources, but there are good reasons to think that it cannot.

Dependence on oil

Fifth in the list of unaccounted costs of the food system are the costs of future investment and capital depreciation which well-run businesses include in current prices. Agriculture and the food sector have done no such thing. Instead, both have become increasingly dependent upon oil which is no longer abundant in the U.S. and the use of which adds to global warming.

The costs of the transition to renewable sources of energy are not included in the prices we pay for food. If the energy used throughout the food sector were to be priced at the rate of the cheapest renewable alternative, prices would rise dramatically.

Whether because of scarcity, or restrictions by exporting nations, or the imposition of carbon taxes to prevent climate change, energy prices will rise in coming decades. Agriculture is unprepared for this transition. Nor is it prepared for what some believe may be a period of climate surprises. If, for example, the California drought turns out to be part of a long-term trend, a sizeable effort would be required to resuscitate farming east of the 100th meridian where we have been converting prime farmland into housing tracts and shopping malls for the past 40 years. Finally, future costs would have to include those associated with the discovery or rediscovery of how to farm on current solar income. I do not know what the Amish would charge to teach agronomy departments and extension agents such things, but they have a reputation for paying and charging full costs.

Health costs

Sixth, and finally, the cost of the U.S. food system should include the damage it does to our health. Americans eat too much and too much of the wrong things. As a result, we are unique among the nations of the world in the range and novelty of diet-related ailments such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and tooth decay. Diet-related health problems are a sizeable part of the nation's medical bill.

No doubt, acolytes for the status quo would point out that sizeable economic benefits also accrue from the growing sector of the economy that concerns itself with selling remedies: "health" clubs, diet clinics, vendors of exercise videos and books, plastic surgeons offering liposuction of various parts of the anatomy, and jogging equipment suppliers. But one could also call these hidden costs of a mismanaged food system.

The journey home

The prospects for a sustainable agriculture will finally depend on a larger movement away from the consumer economy toward an economy that supplements efficiency with sufficiency and refuses to place any price whatsoever on priceless things. In Alan Durning's words, this is an economy that returns home: "to the ancient order of family, community, good work, and good life; to a reverence for excellence of skilled handiwork; to a true materialism that does not just care about things but cares for them; to communities worth spending a lifetime in."

The homecoming he describes which involves the recovery of moral and civic virtue is no quick fix. It is rather a journey of decades, perhaps centuries, to undo what the industrial economy has done to the land and to us in the past 150 years.

David Orr is professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College. The essay above is included, in a slightly different form, in a chapter of his book Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect.


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