Sustainability: The high price of eating inexpensive food

by David Larom

Artwork courtesy of Lidya Toscani
Artwork courtesy of Lidya Toscani

Food is inexpensive in America. You can buy a burger or a liter of soda for less than $1. The problem is that the social and environmental costs of that inexpensive food have been swept under the rug. I’m not exaggerating when I say this inexpensive food is the most expensive that has ever been produced.

First, the burger. The cows that burger was made from like to eat grass and other very fibrous vegetables. But they are fed corn instead. It takes 10 pounds of corn, corn that could be fed to humans, and hundreds of gallons of water, to make a pound of beef. Cows weren’t designed to eat corn, so it gives them gas. Funny as it might sound, cow farts are a significant source of methane, a global warming gas 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The cows aren’t happy about their indigestion either; neither do they like being crowded by the thousand, sometimes knee-deep in their own manure, on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Ever drive north on Interstate 15? That funky smell near the town of Norco is the sweet perfume of a CAFO. Sanitation and space are so lacking in these animal concentration camps that antibiotics are mixed into their feed to keep them from getting sick. Antibiotics used to kill every bacterium that could infect us; now there are bacteria no antibiotic can kill.

The worst jobs in America go to slaughterhouse workers. These were once good union jobs, but in a race to cut costs they now go to undocumented and unprotected workers who suffer one of the highest injury rates of any job sector. The criminal element exploits this vulnerable demographic, and now slaughterhouses serve as major methamphetamine distribution nodes for the Mexican drug cartels.

Of course, a lot of the corn we grow does go to feed humans — unfortunately, to feed them the high-fructose corn syrup that makes soda so “affordable.” America is now the fattest nation in the world. One third of Americans born today will eventually get diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes; the figure is 50 percent for people of color. Prevention is the most affordable kind of health care reform, so perhaps we could stop directly subsidizing obesity. There are three expensive ailments that frighten insurers into jacking up rates: diabetes, heart disease and mental illness. A healthier diet would reduce two out of three.

Today, the American — and increasingly global — food system is run for the profit of a few mega-corporations such as Monsanto. Junk food is engineered to be inexpensive and addictive. Farmers can’t compete with the inexpensive prices of the big farms, so they leave the farm for the city. All across the American Midwest, towns are disappearing along with farm jobs. At least those who remain can “tweak” to give them the energy to compete for the few remaining jobs. Globally, one in seven humans alive today are “squatters,” residing illegally on the crowded and unsanitary urban peripheries of Rio, Lagos, Mumbai and other developing world megalopoli; by 2050 the figure will be one in three.

The average American food item travels 1,500 miles — through several factories, I might add —before reaching your plate or takeout bag. This means it takes about eight calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food. Inexpensive gas, inexpensive food. Expensive gas? Bye-bye, 99 cent burger.

The good news is that another way is possible. We can buy local organic food from farmers we know, who treat their animals humanely (not to mention use their manure for the valuable organic fertilizer it is). We can lose some of that American fat by working on a farm such as Wild Willow, our local teaching farm (goodbye gym fees and tanning salon!). We can improve our food security by growing some of our own; organizations such as Victory Gardens, San Diego Roots and San Diego Master Gardeners will help any aspiring gardener. We can work to lobby Congress to cut Monsanto subsidies from the Farm Bill, and instead favor the small organic farmer. We can help fledgling local organizations such as Grow Strong, which aims to improve the lives of Kenyan farmers and staunch the flow of humanity from their beloved country to the city. We can help end our dependence on foreign oil by embracing the land, in a yeoman’s ethic that would have made Thomas Jefferson, farmer that he was, proud.

—Dr. David Larom is an ISCOR professor at San Diego State.

—The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.