The High Costs of Cheap Food

The High Costs of Cheap Food

"We have very, very expensive food in this country."

"It's just that the prices are cheap."

So said Paul Hawken, the environmentalist, entrepreneur and author, in a speech that began Cooking for Solutions, a conference on food and the environment, accompanied by lots of marvelous eating and drinking, this week at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif.

The American industrial food system, he said, is bad for the planet, bad for farmworkers and bad for consumers. "How did we make destroying our land, our children and our health a big business?" Hawken asked.

This was not an upbeat way to start the two-day event, but it's hard to argue with his analysis. Big Ag produces lots of food -- particularly grain and meat -- at very cheap prices. According to the USDA (cited by Bryan Walsh in this terrific article in TIME), Americans spend less than 10 percent of their incomes on food, down from 18 percent in 1966. Farm price supports, cheap fossil fuels and vast amounts of water all drive down the price of food.

And the true social and environmental costs? Let's tally them. They include millions of tons of fertilizer that runs into rivers and the Gulf of Mexico, created an oxygen-starved dead zone that kills of sea life. Hog and chicken waste that contaminate waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Overuse of antibiotics on animals that helps create antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If you care about animals, there's the horror of confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. We've got food safety risks. Tons of global warming pollution. And, oh yeah, an epidemic of obesity, which, again according to TIME, adds $147 billion (that's billion with a B) a year to our medical bills.

Ugh. And so, for the rest of day, scientists, activists, academics and a sprinkling of farmers and food company executives such as Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm and Margaret Wittenberg of Whole Foods Market talked about how to make our food system more sustainable.

Here are a just a few highlights:

Fish farms that mimic nature: I was surprised to learn that for the first time this year, more fish consumed in the world this year will be farmed than caught in the wild. The vast majority of salmon and shrimp consumed in the U.S., for example, is farmed, most of it in Asia. To meet predicted demand for seafood by 2020, aquaculture will have to double production. Yet fish farming has a terrible environmental reputation -- excess feed and copious waste cause water pollution, farmed fish escape into the wild and spread disease, the fish meal needed to feed them depletes marine systems.

Thierry Chopin with mussels

Dr. Thierry B.R. Chopin, pictured at left, a professor of marine biology at the University of New Brunswick, has a simple idea with a technical name that can make fish farming more environmentally friendly. He raises several species of sea life -- say, Atlantic salmon, mussels and different seaweeds -- together in the same water, they complement one another ecologically and they create multiple revenue streams for the fish farmer. The idea is to duplicate some of the ocean's biodiversity. Waste from one acquatic species becomes food for another, and the seaweed cleanse the water of surplus nitrogen.(The name for this is Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture, or IMTA. Branding is not Thierry's specialty.)

"It's diversification. Don't put all your salmon eggs in the same basket," Thierry said. "It's true in agriculture. It's also true in acquaculture." A company called Cooke Aquaculture is now practicing this approach at a half dozen fish farms in the Bay of Fundy, and it wants to expand to another 8-10 sites.

LEED for Food? When tenants need new space, they can seek out LEED-certified buildings. When consumers buy wood or paper, they can look for products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Refrigerators, TVs, washer-dryers have Energy Star labels.

But when buying food -- at least the vast majority of food -- there's no way for consumers, supermarkets, chefs or even big food companies to know which farmers, ranchers or meat producers are better stewards of the environment than others.

More surprising -- your local supermarket or restaurant often does not even know where its food was grown.

These two problems -- a lack of standards for agriculture, and an opaque, as opposed to transparent, supply chain -- stand in the way of making agriculture more sustainable. With the exception of those who go organic, farmers who are good stewards of the planet aren't rewarded for their efforts.

{related_content}I moderated a panel where Wittenberg of Whole Foods and Maisie Greenawalt of Bon Appetit Management Co., a forward-looking food service company, talked about ways to bring more transparency to their supply chain and standards to the food they sell or serve. Wittenberg, for example, said that Whole Foods has developed its own animal welfare standards and environmental standards for aquaculture, and that it can enforce them by building direct relationships with ranchers and seafood suppliers.

Greenawalt, meanwhile, talked about how Bon Appetit became the first food service company to sign an agreement with the Coalition of of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a organization fighting for more humane farm labor standards in Florida; this required the company to build direct relationships with growers who agreed to live up to the deal.

Several organizations -- including the Keystone Center and Leonardo Academy -- are, in one way or another, trying to define standards for sustainable food, which could eventually lead to labels and third-party certification. But all face obstacles, not the least of which is how tough the standard should be. The Food Alliance has more than a decade of experience in the certifications arena; it began publishing standards, operating a third-party certification and licensing the use of its seal 13 years ago.

Talking about the effort by the Leonardo Academy, Jonathan Kaplan of the Natural Resources Defense Council said: "I'm very skeptical that the committee will be able to agree on a standard, given who's at the table." He went on to say: "If you set a high bar, you are by definition leaving out most of the industry," including farmers who most need to improve. On the other hand: "If you set a low bar, you are just greenwashing."

Stonyfield's win-win-win-win business model: Gary Hirshberg ended the day by sounding a very optimistic note. He recalled the early days of his company, which began with a handful of diary cows: "We had a wonderful business. We just had no supply and no demand…You couldn't use the word organic and the word industry in the same sentence."

stonyorgToday, even though less than 1 percent of farmland in the U.S. meets organic standards, organic food is a $23 billion business and the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. All the major supermarkets have their organic store brands.

Stonyfield Farm has built brand loyalty by doing the right thing, he argued -- working closely with farmers and paying them fair prices for milk, donating 10 percent of profits to environmental groups, being as transparent as possible about its practices.

Hirshberg said: "The farmers are making money. The animals are healthier. Consumers are getting something a lot better. Our employees are well taken care of. And our shareholders have done incredibly well."

What will drive organic agriculture to scale, he said, is the realization that it can be more profitable than conventional agriculture. "Everything we've done is completely scalable," he said. "Everything I've just described to you can be done, whether you're Unilever, Kraft or Stonyfield."

More to come in a few days, including a visit to Earthbound Farm, the nation's largest grower of organic produce and the unlikely story of the New York couple who started it. Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.

KFC Double Down photo CC-licensed by Flickr user djjewelz.