The True Cost of Food

Honest discussions about the future reveal daunting challenges. A reoccurring theme that everyone from the President of the United States of America, the pope, and occasionally even wall street bankers agree on is that the economic system we have in place often does not account for the true value of goods and services. This leads to wealth inequality and resource exploitation. These repercussions present a lurking danger to all humans on earth. Summarily, we are mortgaging the future of our own health and environment for cheaper prices today.


In particular food is a special. Food sustains our breathing life, it carries cultural traditions, and it literally absorbs the environment around it. The way we consume food resonates in all chambers of society. The intention to be healthy, share food with those we love, and have a bounty for today and tomorrow—these aren’t merely things to feel good about, these are actions we can manifest. Of course, to begin with it matters what we eat if we want to be healthy. Research is mounting showing that factory farmed diets high in red meat are particularly damaging to health. Second to share our bounty food we must recognize that globalization means fluctuating market forces can mean starvation for those most vulnerable (we already have enough food to feed the world, right? But it isn’t evenly distributed). Finally, in order to have a bounty for food today and tomorrow we must conserve our environment that produces the food. All of these issues can be ameliorated if the true cost of food was taken into account. Personally, I believe that taking time to prepare food, eating with intention, and sharing food with those we love is important, but I don’t have a lot of numbers on how to express that. I do have numbers showing how factory food production is harmful to the environment in one particular way: green house gas emissions. Actually it turns out that numbers on this subject vary a lot depending on many factors (for example green house gasses include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor; these gasses can be weighted in different ways with respect to their total contribution) so I present here some rough numbers of approximation. A recent study in the European Union found that 15% to 28% of a nation’s total green house gas emissions came from food production. The breakdown:

  • Around 6% of the total green house gas emissions (in the form of nitrous oxide) comes from ammonium nitrate fertilizer production used in farming.
  • Around 5% up to 14.5% of the total green house gas emissions (in the form of methane)comes from cows. Or livestock in general. No joke.  That is right about half of all global methane emissions comes from belching livestock.
  • Around 10% to 20% of the total green house gas emissions comes from deforestation. Here the impacts are compounding. Deforestation takes away the environment’s ability to absorb CO2 and it releases CO2 and methane when burned.

The cost of these green house gas emissions is not taken into account in the cost to consumer of most food. A telling solution to this problem can be seen by asking a simple question. Should we even be eating anything with a face? The arguments come fast from both sides of the debate. With respect to green house gasses, the reduction of meat consumption is cited as one of the highest impact actions possible in some studies. When you ask experts this question, as was done in this excellent Intelligence Squared debate on vegetarianism, the answer if of course debatable, however there is universal agreement that factory farming is abhorrent. It fails ours morals, our environment, and our health. Food it a touchy subject. Some maintain that organic food will save us and some say genetically modified food will doom us, but these claims are hotly debatable and dubious at best. The consensus opinion is that factory farmed food that places low costs above all other concerns is a recipe for individual and environmental disaster. Let us consider the true cost of food for ourselves and the future.

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