rows of bananas in grocery store

The agricultural revolution began some 10,000 years ago when one of our ancestors planted a seed, watched it grow, and ate its fruit. It was time to stop wandering and plant more seeds. This ancestor, let’s call her Neolithia, was the grandmother of agriculture, from her labor sprung not only farming but civilization and industry. From that first seed to the cheap offerings of today, we are in dire need of an evolution of how we produce food.

This Neolithic revolution was the first of many evolutions from the dawn of farming to domestication, specification, and the multiplication of selective breeding. The tastiest and brightest and most nutritive crops were planted. We domesticated animals, fermented fruits and vegetables, we canned, we pasteurized and hybridized. From the last Great War, we were handed the green revolution.

This misnamed “green revolution” of the mid-twentieth century is a continuation of the agricultural revolution that began 10,000 years ago. Yet it surely isn’t green with its chemical-laden agro-industrial methods that rely on cheap labor, patented seeds, cruel factory animal husbandry, and a host of toxic inputs burdening our soil, water, and the environment. From this revolution, we have access to a plethora of inexpensive food that comes with a hefty hidden price tag.

Health Costs

The current state of agriculture isn’t meeting the needs of people around the world. According to the World Health Organization, 600 million people worldwide are obese while another 800 million people are undernourished. Cheap and plentiful food has become life threatening to those who suffer from the seduction of low-priced fare. According to the CDC, the US has a total of 29.1 million people, or 9.3% of the population, who suffer from diabetes. In 2012, the total estimated cost of diabetes was $245 billion. When you figure in heart disease, cancer, exposure to carcinogens like Glyphosate, and antibiotic resistance, the cost paid by all of us comes at a very dear price.

Environmental Impacts

This chemical-intensive agricultural system is devastating our natural environment. Our waters suffer from pesticide runoff and waste that have created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. In my home state of Iowa, the herbicide-laden monoculture, along with the 20 million hogs and 60 million chickens in residence, has created a recent 15% spike in waterway pollution. The fragile skin that supports life – our topsoil — is eroding with half of the topsoil on the planet being lost in the last 150 years. What kind of planetary price tag are we leaving our children?

Climate effects

Agriculture makes up 25-35% of all global emissions that are very literally changing our climate. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, emissions from agriculture have nearly doubled over the past fifty years and could increase an additional 30 percent by 2050. The cost of natural disasters such as catastrophic droughts, floods, super hurricanes, and typhoons is billions of dollars every year. Is the price for regenerative organic agriculture that sequesters carbon from the air and helps reverse climate change too high a charge? I think not.

Animal Welfare

Animal cruelty is the fee paid for cheap meat and dairy. According to the ASPCA, 99% of farm animals in the U.S. are raised in factory farms, which focus on profit and efficiency at the expense of animal welfare. Sows, chickens, and cows are crammed into spaces too small to turn around, lie down, or stand up. Disease and bacteria get to run rampant breeding salmonella and E. coli, which are passed to humans through meat, dairy, and eggs. If everyone in the U.S. could visit the horrors of just one animal factory farm, the days of the 99-cent chicken nuggets would certainly fly the coop.

Human Fairness

Processors and farm workers are paid little to work long grueling hours toiling in unsafe working conditions, many without healthcare, riding the fine line of poverty. Workers at meat processing plants work in horrific conditions, processing hundreds of animals per minute, all for poverty wages. They frequently fall victim to an inordinate amount of injuries and health maladies as a result of the pitiful working conditions. Many are minority and female and their inadequate access to health care gets subsidized by all of us through tax dollars.

Did you know that when you eat out in some states, your server may only be getting paid $2.13 per hour with the assumption that the balance is being made up in tips? Even if the minimum wage of $7.25 is met, most food service workers qualify for food stamps, which we again pay for through taxes.

We have a long way to go if we are going to produce food in a clean, mindful, and fair manner that will sustain us through the next many generations.

The largest hurdle I see in agriculture is the policies and subsidies we have allowed to be put into place that support farmers that aren’t doing the right thing, for the planet, for the people, or for the animals. When this system is geared only for profit, it is out of balance. Greed is at the root of the issue, and we must wrestle it away from many who hold control of our land and forest and grasslands, our very sustenance.

If Neolithia could see what we have done with her agricultural revolution she would demand an evolution, a fundamental cost accounting for the way we’re producing our food. Are you willing to pay a little more to avoid the hidden costs of cheap food for yourself and the next generations?

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About The Author

Melody Meyer's picture

Melody is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). In this role she is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical organic issues. Her Blog www.organicmattersblog.com covers a range of organic and sustainable food issues.

She is the executive director of the UNFI Foundation which is dedicated to funding non-profit organizations that promote organic agriculture  www.unfifoundation.org. Melody serves as Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association www.ota.com.

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