02 September, 2009

The high price of cheap food

Schmutzie posted a link to this article and I read it with horrified fascination. The statistics, while not surprising, are scary and eye-opening. (and hopeless. unless something changes soon we're going to eat ourselves out of house and home...)

Here are some of the more titillating statistics, but the title links to the whole article for those of you like me who wanted to know more...

Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food

The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans. Those hidden prices are the creeping erosion of our fertile farmland, cages for egg-laying chickens so packed that the birds can't even raise their wings and the scary rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria among farm animals. Add to the price tag the acceleration of global warming — our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.

Despite increasing public awareness, sustainable agriculture, while the fastest-growing sector of the food industry, remains a tiny enterprise: according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), less than 1% of American cropland is farmed organically.
As the developing world grows richer, hundreds of millions of people will want to shift to the same calorie-heavy, protein-rich diet that has made Americans so unhealthy — demand for meat and poultry worldwide is set to rise 25% by 2015 — but the earth can no longer deliver.

According to the USDA, Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, down from 18% in 1966.

A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda but just 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit.

With the backing of the government, farmers are producing more calories — some 500 more per person per day since the 1970s — but too many are unhealthy calories. Given that, it's no surprise we're so fat; it simply costs too much to be thin.

American farmers now produce an astounding 153 bu. of corn per acre, up from 118 as recently as 1990. But the quantity of that fertilizer is flat-out scary: more than 10 million tons for corn alone — and nearly 23 million for all crops.

When runoff from the fields of the Midwest reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it contributes to what's known as a dead zone, a seasonal, approximately 6,000-sq.-mi. area that has almost no oxygen and therefore almost no sea life. Because of the dead zone, the $2.8 billion Gulf of Mexico fishing industry loses 212,000 metric tons of seafood a year, and around the world, there are nearly 400 similar dead zones. Even as we produce more high-fat, high-calorie foods, we destroy one of our leanest and healthiest sources of protein.

The UCS estimates that about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we're breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.
Since 1935, consolidation and industrialization have seen the number of U.S. farms decline from 6.8 million to fewer than 2 million — with the average farmer now feeding 129 Americans, compared with 19 people in 1940.

The USDA estimates that Americans throw out 14% of the food we buy, which means that much of our record-breaking harvests ends up in the garbage.


Jen of A2eatwrite said...

This is why I'm doing so much writing/reading/working around sustainable agriculture and artisan foods these days. Not for the "artisan" elements, but for nourishing our bodies with unprocessed food stuffs, and with returning our land, as much as possible, to a better state. The other issue of course, is why should we be producing all this excess when others in the world are starving. Everything is out of balance.

anno said...

Stomach-turning, isn't it? Good reasons to look for better options (like the ones Jen has been scouting). BTW, have you seen Food, Inc., the movie based on the work of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser? I'm dying to see it, but will probably have to wait for it to come out on DVD.

Expats Again said...

I just listened to a documentary on NPR about this same topic. I think the time has come to make this a national priority. Big industry is at it again and we will pay the cost with our health/lives. Thanks for posting this.

Betsy said...

Jen: I totally agree with you. It's one of the reasons I enjoy following your blog. It's such a relief to have found a kindred spirit in this area!

Anno: I haven't, but I really like what I've read about Michael Pollan and will definitely look it up. Thanks for the tip!

Expats Again: I love the stories I've heard on NPR on this topic. It's so nice to see it get some air time!