One of the first barriers to eating healthy people always bring up is the cost. Unfortunately, processed food, per calorie, does tend to be cheaper than whole foods. And even when the whole food is cheaper monetarily, it costs a lot more effort and time to prepare than the processed food. In my perfect world, subsidies for meat and corn and soy would be removed and fruits and vegetables would be subsidized (among other policy changes) so that a healthy diet would be much more affordable, but right now the question is not only why does eating healthfully cost more, but also why are we willing to spend only so little on food? Americans spend the lowest percentage of their income on food (about 10% on average) of any country in the world. We all understand that food is a basic necessity, and hopefully you understand that healthy food is absolutely imperative in order to have a chance at leading a healthy life. I can only speak for myself, but there are many luxuries that I would forfeit if it meant I could live a longer, happier life freer from chronic disease.
I think it goes back to that whole immediate gratification thing. We see the merit of cheap food to be saving money and time now and being immediately satisfied by whatever fat, sugar, and salt-filled creation we happen to be buying. But if you think that price of that burger is really all you’re paying for convenient, tasty, empty calories, think again. Maybe minimally processed food costs a few more dollars a day now, but industrially produced animal products, processed food, and even industrially produced fruits and vegetables are costing us a lot more in the long run:
Obesity and related chronic diseases: The majority of Americans are regularly and sometimes almost exclusively eating these cheap animal products and nutritionally devoid calories that in turn encourage them to overeat and develop obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and a host of other problems. The health care necessary to manage those problems costs a lot more than the price of a healthier diet, not just for the individual, but for the taxed public.
Antibiotic resistance: One of the ways farmers give us super cheap meat is by increasing the growth rate of livestock by routinely feeding them antibiotics regardless of whether the animals are sick. As I have written before, this practice promotes the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause nasty infections in humans that may soon be impossible to cure. Unlike obesity, antibiotic resistance is an acute public health concern. Every day more people are dying of antibiotic-resistant infections—is that worth cheaper meat to you?
Farm and foodservice worker abuse and poverty: Another unsavory way we get cheap meat, produce, and restaurant food is the downright abuse and underpayment of farm and foodservice workers. For those foodservice workers who are paid the federal minimum wage, that is not even a living wage, especially that of tipped workers, which is much lower. Often, though, undocumented immigrants are working in meatpacking establishments and picking fruits and vegetables in the field, and farmers can get away with paying them less than the minimum wage for backbreaking, unsanitary, and sometimes dangerous work. And as I have also written before, this business systematically discriminates against women and people of color.
Livestock abuse: There are a whole slew of shockingly awful practices that abuse millions of animals in what are commonly called “factory farms” across the U.S. These technically termed “concentrated animal feeding operations” pack thousands of animals together in the tightest quarters imaginable where they barely have space to breathe, let alone perform any of their instinctual, natural behaviors. Chickens in this situation essentially stand crowded around in their own filth pecking each other, sometimes to death. When it comes time for slaughter, the typical procedure is anything but humane. I have a more detailed post on this topic too.
Pollution, ecological disruption, and climate change: The current system of industrial agriculture that is designed to get the highest yield of crop and meat at the lowest cost is also perfectly designed to pollute our air and water and increase greenhouse gas emissions and natural resource depletion. Chemical fertilizers destroy the soil’s natural potential for anything to grow and runoff into bodies of water leading to dead zones. Chemical pesticides are almost certainly poisoning farmworkers and beneficial bugs and probably at some level poisoning us eaters. The amount of waste that comes from factory farms is so great that it cannot be disposed of sanitarily, so it too ends up polluting the air and water. When these practices unintentionally cause the endangerment of any species of plant or animal, that is a disruption to an ecosystem whose consequences we cannot predict. Conventional farming, especially meat production, also leads to the use of monstrous amounts of water and fossil fuels and consequently proportional carbon dioxide emissions. Factory farmed cows also contribute directly and greatly to methane emissions. These greenhouse gases are unequivocally accelerating climate change and making this planet harder and harder to survive on. Maybe our demand for cheap food won’t affect how long we can survive on earth, but it is surely shortening that time for future generations.
I do believe it is the responsibility of our government to make healthy, ecologically sound, and socially just food the default choice, but even then truly sustainable food may cost more than we’d like, when you account for the costs of preventing all of the things I just described. I guess it depends on your priorities.
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading!