The True Cost of "Cheap" Food - Part 1: A Human Perspective
This is Part 1 in a three part series detailing the costs of industrial farming from the perspective of human, environmental, and animal welfare.
The views expressed in this article reflect our personal research and experiences. Our general view is that the harms outlined below are not necessarily intentional on the part of food companies.
More likely is that they are just the inevitable consequence of a complex system working to feed the masses who expect cheap prices and to satisfy investors who demand growing profits.
Regardless of intent, it must not be ignored that as “cheap” food becomes more abundant, the cost to humanity, totaling billions in medical expenses, cleanup costs, taxpayer subsidies, small business bankruptcies, and more continues rising as well. This trend is not sustainable.
Most of us are familiar with the connection between industrial farms and animal cruelty. We’ve seen the videos of the grotesque living conditions animals are subjected to in “factory farms.”
But most of us will never visit one of these facilities. They are distant, and our guilt tends to fade by the time we return to the grocery store and are faced with cheery food labels and low prices.
Perhaps if we better understood the toll of this food system on our personal wellbeing then we might be further nudged to re-prioritize our food choices.
Although humans are not the ones confined to feed lots, our financial support of industrial food does lock us into a different type of subjugation - the subjugation of our health to their profits.
We aim to raise awareness for this issue and emphasize that low upfront prices must not be the be-all and end-all in food buying decisions.
We must recognize the system’s inherent unsustainability and advocate for changes that increase transparency and a return to traditional agricultural practices that make the health of every living thing involved a priority.
I - Consumer Health
Before the industrial food revolution, people ate food that was available seasonally or was naturally preserved in winter months. The animals being raised lived on pastures and grazed according to their instincts.
Image source: State archives of North Carolina: http://www.flickr.com/photos/north-carolina-state-archives/6238473724/
That was then.
This is now:
Image source: https://sites.psu.edu/cila/files/2017/03/dairycafo-26eob65.jpg
We live in times of unprecedented abundance, and yet, we have never been so sick. Obesity, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes incidences are at all time highs. Medical expenses for the obesity epidemic alone in the US are estimated at approx. $150 billion annually. (1)
So how exactly has the industrial food system contributed to this decline in human health and its mounting expenses?
Antibiotic Exposure and Resistance
Farm animals in the industrial food system are commodities. They are bred for hyper-fast growth, and kept under tight control. Free range is off the table. One roof is much easier to manage.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is the general term for what emerged as a way to manage lots of farm animals at once. The facilities are crowded and hard to clean, which is not ideal for raising healthy animals. Antibiotics and hormones help compensate for that.
There are limits to how much of these substances can be administered, and still, approximately 80% of all antibiotics used in the US are fed to farm animals. (2) Around 75% of these antibiotics are not fully digested, entering the environment and potentially nearby human populations. (3) We are seeing certain populations begin to pay the price.
Two million people in the US enter hospitals each year with bacterial infections, 70% of which are resistant to at least one commonly used antibiotic. (4)
As we continue eating animals dependent on antibiotics we risk making more potentially life-saving drugs ineffective. Are we willing to pay that price?
In highly concentrated farm animal facilities waste is quick to build up in enormous quantities. If not quickly disposed of this waste becomes a threat to nearby communities with the “downstream” effect of air, water, and land pollution. (5)
Potential pollutants associated with animal wastes include nutrients (such as ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorus), organic matter, solids, pathogens, antibiotics, odorous or volatile compounds, and trace elements (such as arsenic and copper).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these pollutants can directly affect human health and can encourage the growth and development of potentially harmful plants and organisms.
To cite one example - more than a million Americans take drinking water from groundwater contaminated by nitrogen-containing pollutants, mostly derived from animal wastes and agricultural fertilizers. (6) Several studies have linked nitrates in the drinking water to birth defects, disruption of thyroid function, and various types of cancers. (7)
In a study of 226 North Carolina schools, children living within three miles of factory farms had significantly higher asthma rates and more asthma-related emergency room visits than children living more than three miles away. (8)
Why should anyone’s health be jeopardized for just happening to live near a large-scale food production facility?
Synthetic Pesticide and Fertilizer Exposure
Factory farms are often monocultures specializing in a single crop or animal. This is a phenomenon one is hard pressed to find in nature or in any sustainable agricultural operation.
The author Wendell Berry summed it up well saying, “Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm—which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of American farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.” (9)
As Mr. Berry states, animal monocultures have major problems with waste. And crop monocultures can strip the underlying soil of its fertility. In nature, there is a symbiotic relationship between the animals and plants where they actually each feed each other. Not so on industrial farms.
In the absence of natural manures, industrial crop farmers rely on synthetic pesticides and herbicides. The numerous negative health effects associated with exposure to these chemicals include, among others, dermatological, gastrointestinal, neurological, carcinogenic, respiratory, reproductive, and endocrine effects. (10)
One especially well-known herbicide is RoundUp, which contains the chemical compound glysophate. In 2014 alone, US farmers sprayed enough glyphosate to cover every acre of domestic farmland with about a pound of the stuff. (11) Glysophate is surrounded by a great deal of controversy.
RoundUp’s manufacturer Monsanto is currently embroiled in an enormous flood of lawsuits claiming workers exposed to the chemical developed cancer. (12)
What’s more, Monsanto executives may have attempted to cover up information about glysophate’s harmful human effects via bankrolled scientists and political appointees. (13) It is an alarming modern day reminder of the potential for profits to be prioritized over health. One way or another, the public pays the price.
Pesticides are not just an issue for the farm workers who deploy them. Residues are known to show up in everyday food products too. Residual glyphosate in wheat products has been suggested as the cause for gluten intolerance and celiac disease, an increasingly common human health issue. (14)
Even if individual pesticides stay under the regulated limit in our food, known as “safe for human consumption,” there is less regulation around simultaneous exposure to two or more chemical substances, which may have synergistic effects. (15)
We put the health of humanity in an unnecessarily fragile position the longer we continue consuming foods containing these unnatural and potentially deadly substances that go hand-in-hand with "cheap" food.
Why not do all we can to support food systems that leverage natural alternatives to these synthetic chemicals?
Food Recalls / Contaminated Food
Finally, let’s check in with the news to see how consumers are faring with the abundance of industrial food products at their disposal. It appears not so well.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that contaminated meat and poultry-related infections make up to 3 million Americans sick each year. (16) That food should have never left the warehouse.
Major food recalls are also becoming regular occurrences. A simple Google search of the term “chicken recall” instantly returns tens of thousands of results.
No matter how many “safeguards” major food corporations put in place, errors inevitably occur. The problem is that when the system is so gigantic and complex, even small errors can result in enormous exposure of contaminants to the public that are not easily traceable.
Just within the past year there have been recalls in the chicken industry for tens of thousands of pounds of meat that may have contained metal and rubber. In 2018 more than 6.5 million pounds of ground beef were recalled due to bacterial infection in just one instance. (17)
As we witness these stories over and over again we have to wonder: is human nutrition honestly a top priority for the companies who offer us such low priced food?
Even if so, the systems they rely on are clearly flawed and unsustainable. A population concerned with health cannot depend on these systems to meet their nutritional needs.
II - Factory Farm Worker Health
Now that we better understand the toll of industrial food on consumer health, we will take a look at how the employees of that same system are faring.
There are more than 500,000 people in the US working in industrial slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants. These workers play a critical role in our mass food production system, and they pay a steep toll for their services. Industrial food processing plants are some of the most dangerous factory jobs in the US.
American meat workers literally risk life and limb on factory floors and are three times more likely to suffer serious injury than the average US worker. (18) Those employed in CAFOs suffer staggeringly high rates of numerous health conditions.
There are indications that at least 25 percent of these workers experience respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis or occupational asthma. (19) At big food processing plants, line speeds are so fast that workers are often crippled for life with repetitive motion problems. (20)
In terms of regulations to protect these vulnerable workers’ health, government fines for abuses are relatively low. There is little indication that things will change any time soon.
In fact, the Trump Administration recently announced a program allowing chicken plants to increase their line speed, despite evidence that this will endanger workers, public health, and animal welfare. Poultry workers already suffer work-related injury and illnesses at rates 60 percent higher than average. (21)
Employee abuse in the poultry industry has been particularly well documented. In one particularly shocking recent report, Oxfam charged that workers at the four largest US poultry companies - Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms, Perdue Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride - are routinely denied bathroom breaks, forcing some to wear adult diapers to work and others to urinate on themselves to avoid retribution from supervisors. (22)
The big chicken companies issued statements vowing to right these wrongs. They have a very low bar to overcome in doing so. Perhaps it is time that consumers decide not to wait, and opt out of supporting companies that would ever allow this to happen in the first place.
It is entirely possible to raise and process meat without abusing employees. But it is evidently not so easy in a large corporate or industrial infrastructure where speed is so highly incentivized. Carelessness is inevitable.
Fortunately, we have alternatives in local and sustainability-focused enterprises. The local farmer offering full transparency into production has a different set of priorities and cannot afford to risk his or her employees’ health for the sake of “efficiency.”
III - Financial Health: Small Towns and the American Taxpayer
We are all familiar with the stories of big box stores running mom and pop shops out of business. This reality has reshaped many of the main streets and commercial centers of towns across the country. An eerily similar story has taken shape when it comes to American farmland. The table below tells the story quite well:
Source: Farms and Land in Farms: 2015 Summery. Published by USDA NASS
Today approximately 85% of the beef produced in the US comes from just four companies. (23) The top five poultry producers provide about 60% of our chicken. (24) The more control these few companies get, the less power remains in the hands of their customers.
Is this a trend we want to see continue?
Factory farms use massive quantities of corn, soy and grain in their animal feed, all crops that they are often able to purchase at below cost thanks to government subsidies. By contrast, many small farms producing much of their own forage receive no government money.
These small farms should therefore not be expected to match the efficiency claims of the large, subsidized factory farms. Nor should they be expected to offer the same prices. Yet they have no choice but to compete on the same playing field.
It is in this way that government subsidies punish small farmers and clearly accelerate the trends illustrated above.
Communities must take it upon themselves to support local farms, even if it may seem more difficult to do so. Clearly, the industrial food system has no problem quietly externalizing the true cost of their food back onto consumers and their communities in the end.
We do not want to see a day where all of our food is in the hands of a few nameless, faceless corporations who wield inordinate amounts of power over consumers. We must reverse this trend.
The Rigged Game of Modern Day Chicken
Finally, as chicken producers ourselves, we pay special attention to the chicken industry. It is a microcosm of the larger food system, and we believe that understanding how “Big Chicken” operates provides great insight into how rotten a deal we all get from industrial food as a whole.
The chicken industry was an early innovator in industrial food production. Corporations like Tyson realized the benefits of vertical integration to their bottom line. In other words, they took on the industrial mentality of owning every step in the production process, from hatching eggs to slaughter and beyond.
Interestingly, the one step in the process that these corporations outsource is the “farming” of the chickens themselves. This aspect of the business they determined to be unprofitable early on and therefore farmed it out to individuals in the small rural towns where they set up shop. The contracts these farmers enter into with chicken companies is often likened to indentured servitude. (25)
The farmers are required to build large-scale chicken confinement facilities that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They take out personal loans for the construction and bet on being able to pay off the loans with their income from the chickens.
Once operational though, these farmers are at the mercy of the larger chicken company. The farmers do not get a say in the source of the birds or what they are fed. If a farmer is sent bad feed or has a batch of sickly chicks, there is nothing much he or she can do about it.
At Tyson, the farmers are placed into a highly scrutinized and competitive system where the operations who grow the biggest birds with the least amount of feed are rewarded, and those at the bottom are penalized with lesser pay. One farmer’s success comes at his neighbor’s expense. (26)
Over time, staying at the bottom of the rankings means risking the loss of your contract entirely. From there, bankruptcy is imminent.
Does this sound like a healthy local economy playing out in our small towns?
More Government Assistance for Big Farms at the Expense of the People
In yet another example of the advantages big farms get over smaller ones, this entire chicken tournament system is significantly aided by an obscure federal organization called the Farm Service Agency (FSA). (27)
The FSA essentially spends hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to make sure there will always be cheap loans for a new chicken farm when an older one is put out of business.
Under their guaranteed loan program, the FSA will pay back more than 90 percent of the loan value if a farmer defaults. The bank also keeps any down payment the farmer made, plus any fees, interest, and other money collected before the bankruptcy. They can sell off the farm’s assets to recoup the loan value. Of course, the bankrupt farmers don’t get any of that money.
The FSA’s loan program may have originated as a safety net for struggling farmers. But in the modern era of corporate influences seeping into the halls of Washington, it now serves more as a safety net for companies like Tyson and the banks. (28)
In this way the dominant industrial food companies and banks offload their financial risks onto the backs of small farmers and the American taxpaying public.
Is there not something wrong with this picture?
Conclusion - A Call to Return to our Roots
They say there is no such thing as a free lunch. Well, what about a “cheap” one? We all understand that there is no shortage of low price tags on grocery store shelves.
But the full story behind those tags is troubling to say the least. Every penny we appear to save upfront has a cost that eventually comes back around. This is why understanding the full story behind our food is so important.
Consumers armed with the truth are dangerous to companies who externalize their full costs of production. These consumers are not so easily persuaded by the misleading labels and unavoidable advertisements.
What’s the story behind your food?
It was not so long ago that personal relationships existed between families and food producers. We understood where our food came from because we could follow it back directly to its source. As these relationships dwindle, the cost to our wellbeing is steep.
We must not prioritize cheap convenience over genuine relationships. And thus a return to our roots is the best prescription when it comes to our food.
We must seek out farmers who offer full transparency into production and farming practices that work with nature, not against her.
Because what good are low prices that come at the expense of our health? It’s a question that hits home for all of us. We just need to act (and spend) accordingly.
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1.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4887150/ 2.) US Food and Drug Administration. Center for Veterinary Medicine. Summary report on antimicrobials sold or distributed for use in food-producing animals. Accessed March 24, 2016 3.) Chee-Sanford JC, Mackie RI, Koike S, et al. Fate and transport of antibiotic residues and antibiotic resistance genes following land application of manure waste. J Environ Qual. 2009;38(3):1086-1108 4.) Bren L. Battle of the bugs: fighting antibiotic resistance. FDA Consum. 2002;36(4):28-34. 5.) https://www.globalagriculture.org/whats-new/news/en/32795.html 6.) Pew Commission, Putting Meat on the Table, 29 7.) Food and Water Watch, Turning Farms into Factories: How the Concentration of Animal Agriculture Threatens Human Health, the Environment, and Rural Communities(Washington, DC: Food and Water Watch, 2007), 7. 8.) https://aldf.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/CAFOs-Plaguing-North-Carolina-Communities-of-Color.pdf 9.) Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating,” in Bringing It to the Table: On Food and Farming(Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009) 10.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4947579/ 11.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5044953/ 12.) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1383574218300887 13.) https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/jul/09/monsanto-trial-roundup-weedkiller-cancer-dewayne-johnson 14.) Samsel A, Seneff S. Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: celiac sprue and gluten intolerance. Interdiscip Toxicol. 2013;6(4):159-184 15.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4947579/ 16.) P. Frenzen, A. Majchrowicz, B. Buzby, B. Imhoff, and the FoodNet Working Group, “Consumer Acceptance of Irradiated Meat and Poultry Products,” Agriculture Information Bulletin 757 (2000): 1–8 17.) https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/04/health/salmonella-outbreak-jbs-tolleson-meat-recall-bn/index.html 18.) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/05/amputations-serious-injuries-us-meat-industry-plant 19.) Doug Gurian-Sherman, CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists, April 2008), 60. 20.)http://www.harvestpublicmedia.org/topic/dangerous-jobs-cheap-meat 21.) https://www.nelp.org/news-releases/trump-usda-allow-faster-poultry-line-speeds-ignoring-danger-workers-consumers 22.) https://www.oxfamamerica.org/livesontheline 23.) https://arrowquip.com/blog/cattle-research/timeline-of-changes-beef-cattle-north-america 24.) https://www.wattagnet.com/articles/26925-top-5-broiler-producers-dominate-us-production 25.) https://www.farmaid.org/issues/industrial-agriculture/under-contract-farmers-fine-print-honest-look-contract-poultry 26.) Leonard, Christopher. (2014) The Meat Racket - The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster), 115 27.) Leonard, Christopher. (2014) The Meat Racket - The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster), 139 28.) Leonard, Christopher. (2014) The Meat Racket - The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster), 145