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The real cost of cheap food

The real cost of cheap food

By Michael Carolan
Published by Earthscan
Website: www.earthscan.co.uk
2011, 272pp, ISBN 978 1 84971 321 4 (Pb), £19.99

Food costs are escalating worldwide and the number of hungry is rising. Even well-to-do households in the industrialised countries are noticing that increasing food prices are biting into disposable incomes. So how can anyone object to the production of cheap food? The answer lies in the definition of 'cheap'. As Michael Carolan points out explicitly, the production costs of 'cheap' food do not take account of very considerable costs to the environment and human health: "Soil erosion, deforestation, aquifer depletion, 'dead zones', pesticides leaching into underground wells, industrial livestock facilities fouling our air and water ... the price that the environment has paid in the name of 'efficiency' is quite remarkable," Carolan writes.

Driving down costs is a major aim in every industry, and many benefit from the affordability of goods that enhance their lifestyles. Indeed, the intensification of agricultural production has helped to reduce the proportion of income spent on food: in the US the percentage of disposable income spent on food dropped from 13.9 per cent in 1970 to 9.8 per cent in 2005; in Britain the fall was from 33 per cent in 1957 to 15 per cent today. The author goes on, "The ideology of cheap food has helped to give shape to an industry that is undermining its (and thus, our) very existence. What we are doing in the name of food security is actually having the opposite effect. We have created a system that is inherently unsustainable. And there is nothing secure about that."

The real cost of cheap food also examines how industrialised agriculture is entirely dependent on resources that are finite and clearly becoming depleted: oil for fuel, natural gas for nitrogen fertiliser, phosphorus for plant nutrition, and water. Subsidised pumping of water has boosted yields in many countries, the US, Australia, China and India among them, but everywhere water tables are falling and rivers, lakes and reservoirs are drawn down. The mechanisation of agriculture has only been possible because of low-cost oil; perhaps a third of all food produced is from nitrogen synthesised from natural gas; phosphorus is essential for plant growth and its consumption is rising fast but deposits of suitable phosphate rock are a declining resource.

Another telling message that emerges from this book is how extravagantly modern agriculture uses resources to produce 'cheap' food. Comparisons reveal the difference between most and least efficient uses of a number of inputs. Researchers in the US showed as long ago as 1973 "that agriculture was using the equivalent of 80 gallons of gasoline to produce 1 acre of corn. They further noted that while the production of corn per acre increased 2.4 times from 1945 to 1970, the input of fuel rose 3.1 times. In other words, yields in corn energy relative to fuel input declined 26 per cent during this period." Overuse of fertiliser inflicts the additional damage of polluting water sources and careless irrigation results in salination.

Michael Carolan also takes a critical look at livestock production, applying the same rigour to establish how efficiently resources are used to produce meat, milk and eggs. His conclusions are equally troubling. "Animals will soon eat us out of house and home," he writes, pointing out that world grain production cannot keep pace with human and animal demand so how to meet the expected doubling of demand by mid-century? However, he does not advocate vegetarianism but reduced consumption based on livestock products produced, as far as possible, from pasture and by-products.

Overall, this is a thought provoking and timely book and one that also offers a range of options for changing food production and consumer eating habits to strive for a better matching of sustainable production with demand. The major change called for is one of changed mind-sets, never an easy challenge. But it is a challenge that must be met if we are not to destroy the biosphere in our ultimately vain attempt to feed ourselves 'cheaply'.

Date published: November 2011

 

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