Opinion: ‘The true cost of food’

Study says nearly two-thirds of food costs aren’t properly accounted for

Ironically, those who carry “the burden of impact of these costs are disproportionately borne by communities that are marginalized and underserved…”

Like any chain, today’s ubiquitous “supply chains” are only as strong as their weakest links. We again learned this elemental lesson last year, when the rapidly exploding Covid-19 pandemic swept the nation’s streets, sidewalks, and pantries clean of cars, people, and groceries.

Less evident are today’s still-broken links in the global food supply chain.

For example, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), handling delays continue to cripple ports, key avenues to the vast Japanese and Chinese ag export markets.

In fact, the delays are so long, noted AFBF in mid-June, that some shippers now “consider it more efficient to ship empty containers” back to Asia “which has led to a significant decline in the number of containers available to agricultural exporters.”

And that’s not the only weak link the pandemic exposed in today’s ever-longer, increasingly thinner food supply chain. In a detailed, 38-page analysis titled True Cost of Food, released late last month, the Rockefeller Foundation took a hard look at the cost of “producing, processing, retailing, and wholesaling the food we buy and eat.”

In 2019, the year before the market-cracking pandemic, that cost in the U.S. alone was US$1.1 trillion.

This enormous sum, however, “does not include the cost of health care for the millions who fall ill with diet-related diseases,” the report states. “Nor does (it) include the present and future costs of the food system’s contribution to water and air pollution, reduced biodiversity, or greenhouse gas emissions… ”

If you “take those costs into account… it becomes clear that the true cost of the U.S. food system is at least three times as big — $3.2 trillion.”

And, says the Rockefeller analysts, there’s no way to put lipstick on any part of this pig.

“Poor nutrition is now the leading cause of poor health… ” and “(t)he majority of adult hospitalizations (are) attributable to one of four pre-existing conditions: obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and heart failure, in that order.”

Ironically, those who carry “the burden of impact of these costs are disproportionately borne by communities that are marginalized and underserved, often communities of colour, many of whom are the backbone (of our food system) as farmers, fishers, ranchers, and food workers.”

Principally the rural working poor and immigrant communities handle almost 70 per cent of every helping of meat, poultry, vegetable, fruit, and dairy served daily in the U.S.

Today’s rising costs can be slowed, then clipped, suggest the authors, by following strategies already in place in other nations, working to better the health of the only world we have: “… if the U.S. can reduce agriculture-specific emissions to comply with the 1.5 C pathway,” — contain the rise of global temperature to just 1.5 C — “then close to $100 billion could be reduced in additional environmental costs.”

So we do have a choice.

We can work collectively to put more slack in today’s costly, climate-altering, and often unhealthy food supply chain or, “If left unaddressed, the true cost of food will continue to rise and negatively contribute to climate change, the prevalence of diet-related diseases, and growing inequity.”

Which has been the common-sense conclusion of nearly every examination of the food system long before business-school talk of supply chains, blockchains, and export chains came to dominate agriculture.

In fact, we have enough chains. What we badly need more of is less costly, more environmentally sound food systems.

The Farm & Food File is published weekly in newspapers throughout Canada and the U.S.

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