Cheap Food

An acquaintance of mine was bragging the other day about how he had filled his freezer with cheap chicken, chicken priced so low it surely cost more to produce it. I’ve often listened to stories such as this through gritted teeth – don’t get me wrong, I too love a bargain. I just happen to think that cheap food is no bargain.

Cheap food invariably means that the food was raised according to an industrial model. In this case of this cheap chicken, the birds had no doubt been debeaked to prevent cannibalism in their overcrowded conditions. They were raised in tiny wire cages, never seeing actual sunshine. They were given doses of antibiotics from the egg on up to prevent disease stemming from the layer of fecal dust coating the entire chicken warehouse and the increased susceptibility of the birds to disease due to constant stress, and also in the belief that it promotes faster growth of the bird. As dismal as this sounds, the slaughter and processing was worse. Reams have been written in every politically-flavored, educationally-adjusted material, from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation to JAMA to Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profits to the journal Nature. Chicken raised in any other manner (by definition more humane!) costs more, and given a choice Americans almost always buy the cheaper product.

Cheap food is not just bad for the animals. Air, soil, and water quality also suffer. Cheap food means lots of herbicides and chemical fertilizers, and these literally kill the life in the soil. Manure lagoons are created that threaten air and water quality. One reason food thus produced is so cheap is because the inevitable costs of reclaiming the soil or cleaning up the water are never included in the equation — the corporation simply moves on to another location, leaving scorched earth in its wake.

The high concentration and long-distance shipping of animals necessitated by large-scale corporate “farming” guarantees the spread of disease. The CDC estimates that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. The cost to our economy in lost wages and medical treatment is staggering — in excess of $35 billion 1999. As consumers we are “instructed” on the “proper” way to handle food – as if the increasing toxicity in our food were the result of our improper handling rather than their improper production and processing! Do you suppose that folks at our parents’ and grandparents’ church suppers were that much more adept at “proper food handling” than we are? Isn’t it more likely that the food they were starting with was less toxic than our generation’s cheap food?

The true legacy of our agribusiness-model cheap food is antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli . It is the emerging pandemic of “mad cow” disease (vCJD or nvCJD in humans), the current US epidemic of Type II Diabetes in our young people, and the UK’s current Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic (the worst in recorded history).

Not to mention outlandish government subsidies: in FY 2000 the USDA paid farmers over $32 billion — an average of $16,000 per farmer, but big-business “farmers” got the lion’s share. This is our money folks, yours and mine. That’s how they can stay in business even with the price of food below the cost of production.

Beginning to see what “cheap” food is really costing you?

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