Friday, May 20, 2011

The opportunity costs of cheap food

Our food costs more than the price at the grocery store. In addition to the environmental costs, M. Nestle worries about food safety costs that would be much cheaper to prevent than cure. While the argument made by companies and Nestle is that prevention shows up in consumer costs while clean up doesn’t, I would argue that private clean up does show up in consumer costs. It’s only when government and public health systems bear the costs that they don’t show up directly in food costs. She worries also about human costs, including obesity caused in part by cheap, subsidized calories and expensive, unsubsidized vegetables, and:
I was reminded of externalized food costs when reading about the remarkable efforts of a Salinas teacher to educate children of itinerant farmworkers. The kids are trying to learn under disrupted, impoverished, crowded living conditions. If their parents were paid and housed better, we would pay more for food. …
The CEO of a large U.S. meat company told me that if he raised wages by $3, he could hire locals and not have to deal with immigrant labor. But then he would have to raise the price of his meat by 3 cents per pound (I’m not kidding). That amount, he claimed, would price him out of competitiveness. …
Speaking of which, Florida tomato pickers (mostly immigrants) have recently been awarded a much better contract, including higher wages, being informed about their legal labor rights, and many are cheering that the industry is really beginning to turn around. Expect some of the hidden costs of tomatoes to be less hidden.

In support of this notion of the unseen costs of our food system, Batz and colleagues at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute identify the 10 pathogen-food combinations that cost us the most in terms of public health (medical care, lost productivity, chronic disabilities including permanent physical and mental damage to infants, etc.):
Campylobacter in poultry — costs $1.3 billion a year [sickens more than 600,000 Americans annually]
Toxoplasma in pork — costs $1.2 billion a year
Listeria in deli meats — costs $1.1 billion a year
Salmonella in poultry — costs $700 million a year
Listeria in dairy products — costs $700 million a year
Salmonella in complex foods — costs $600 million a year
Norovirus in complex foods — costs $900 million a year
Salmonella in produce — costs $500 million a year
Toxoplasma in beef — costs $700 million a year
Salmonella in eggs — costs $400 million a year
Another source Nestle misses is the taxes needed to pay for government food policies in the form of taxation.

An example of unusual environmental costs of a food system comes from Zimbabwe, whose justice department has decided to solve undernutrition in overcrowded prisons by adding elephant meat to the menu. The government’s position is that there are three times as many elephants as conservation groups think, so they have “an elephant overpopulation crisis.”

No comments:

Post a Comment