The Hidden Costs of Food

Conservative estimates suggest that the real cost of our food could be roughly double the apparent cost.

Conservative estimates suggest that the real cost of our food could be roughly double the apparent cost.
Conservative estimates suggest that the real cost of our food could be roughly double the apparent cost. (Christian Draghici/Shutterstock)

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Americans consume an average of three burgers and more than three liters of soda a week. Many of us realize this isn’t healthy, but it certainly is cheap. Or is it? How much do we really pay for food, when you consider the health, societal and environmental problems caused by producing and eating it?

I recently spoke at a conference on the true cost of food, alongside farmers, health experts, labor advocates, food industry executives and others. As I started to tally the numbers I was hearing at the conference, it seemed to me that the true cost of food could be double, if not triple, what we pay out of pocket.

Environmentalists often talk about the hidden costs of pollution from our energy system, and there have been many studies that examine this question. But I wasn’t aware of any studies that approached food in a similar way. The numbers presented below are rough, but even these conservative estimates suggest that the real cost of our food could be roughly double the apparent cost. Clearly, this is an issue worth exploring further.

According to the USDA, Americans spent approximately $1.5 trillion on food in 2014. That’s what we spend at grocery stores, restaurants and every other place we buy food. But here are some additional costs we don’t see on that price tag. (All figures below are approximate, but are based on the best available research.)

Hidden Health Costs of our Food

  • Treatment of diseases linked to poor diet: $1 trillion

    When it comes to estimating the cost of illness, it’s difficult to isolate the impact of diet alone, since genetics, lifestyle and many other factors are involved. Nevertheless, we know poor diets are a major contributor to chronic diseases, which in the United States account for 86 percent of health care spending—about $2.5 trillion in 2014. 

    The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that obesity alone costs the United States $660 billion each year, while the National Academies calculate that cardiovascular disease and diabetes cost another $545 billon per year. Credit Suisse reviewed a number of studies and determined the effect of poor diet in the United States—specifically related to excess sugar consumption—to be $1 trillion per year. By including the cost of diet-related diseases alone, we’ve already roughly doubled the cost of our food.

  • Adverse reactions to food dye: $5 billion (Center for Science in the Public Interest)

    The CSPI recently warned the FDA that “adverse behavioral reactions” to food dyes affect more 500,000 children every year. Several studies have linked food dyes to hyperactivity.

  • Public health costs from overuse of antibiotics in livestock: $2 billion (Union of Concerned Scientists)

    On the factory farms that produce most of the meat we eat, antibiotics are routinely given to animals that aren’t sick, a practice that can spawn dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This estimate does not include the incalculable cost of what might happen to modern medicine if antibiotics lose their life-saving potency.

  • Pesticide poisonings and related illnesses: $1 billion (Pimentel, Cornell University)

    Industrial agriculture uses 877 million pounds of chemical pesticides every year, many of which are carcinogenic, neurotoxic and/or cause reproductive or respiratory problems.

Hidden Environmental Costs of our Food

  • Nitrogen pollution from agriculture: $157 billion (Sobota)

    When nitrogen fertilizer, largely used on industrial cornfields, and nitrogen from animal manure washes off farms and feedlots, it can contaminate drinking water, damage fisheries and create toxic algal blooms. Researchers estimate that the cost of nitrogen pollution from growing corn is more than twice the market value of the corn itself.

  • Soil erosion from agriculture: $44 billion (Pimentel, Cornell University)

    Intensively growing a single crop—the way most farming is done in the United States—makes land more vulnerable to erosion by wind and water. In 2010, 1.72 billion tons of topsoil were lost to erosion, equal to about 200,000 tons per hour.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and farming$22 billion (EPA)

    The EPA estimates the greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. agriculture, including livestock, to be more than 600 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year. (Others have suggested that the number could be higher.) The EPA also estimates that climate pollution costs $36 per ton. (Many consider this to estimate to be low.) All in all, an estimate of $22 billion is probably conservative.

  • Other pesticide costs, including bird deaths, pesticide resistance, crop loss and groundwater contamination: $7 billion (Pimentel, Cornell University)
  • Cleanup of manure leached from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs): $4 billion (UCS)

    Giant animal feedlots, where hundreds of thousands of animals are kept in a confined space and fattened with subsidized grains, produce more than 300 million tons of excrement every year—more than twice the amount generated by the entire human population of the United States. The waste is held in open pits, which can leak and contaminate land, water and air, and is also sprayed on fields as fertilizer. This figure reflects only the cost of soil cleanup due to leakage from manure pits, not the cost of cleaning up after spills or pollution from spraying.

Hidden Social Costs of our Food

  • Declining property values near Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs): $26 billion (Union of Concerned Scientists)

    People who live near industrial feedlots contend with the constant distress caused by foul odors and contaminated water.

  • Taxpayer subsidies to industrial farms: $13 billion (Congressional Budget Office)

    It’s almost impossible to tease out every provision in the 959-page Farm Bill, but you could argue that the cost of programs for commodity crops (corn, wheat, soy and cotton) and crop insurance mostly involve direct payments to or subsidies for large-scale industrial farms. These two line items add up to more than $13 billion in taxpayer money every year.

  • Federal assistance for families of fast food industry workers: $7 billion (UC Berkeley Labor Center)

    More than half of fast food industry employees have families enrolled in taxpayer-funded public assistance programs, including food stamps.

This list is not meant to be an exhaustive or even a precise calculation of costs. My hope is that it will be a conversation starter. Subsidies for harmful foods, healthcare costs and the impacts of pollution should be included in the “real” price of food. When we include these externalized costs we see that large-scale, industrialized food production, with its vast monocultures and factory farm facilities, is not more efficient or more productive than the smaller scale, more integrated, more diverse farming of healthier crops.

Some argue that keeping food costs down is essential, and therefore we can’t afford to change our food system. But when you see the true cost of food, it becomes apparent that we can’t afford to keep it.

Fertile Grounds is a blog series that examines the challenges and opportunities in ensuring access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food for all. We talk about the entire lifecycle of food—from seed selection and planting to consumption and disposal—because there is potential for improvement throughout. We’re informed by the expertise of our many clients and allies and by Earthjustice’s years of work to ban harmful pesticides, encourage sustainable farming methods, reduce pollution, support farmworker justice and promote a healthy relationship between farmers and communities.

This blog was first published by The Huffington Post on August 15, 2016.

Based in New York, Peter Lehner (@p_lehner) directs Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food & Farming Program, developing litigation, administrative, and legislative strategies to promote a more just and environmentally sound agricultural system and to reduce health, environmental, and climate harms from production of our food.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.