Last week Mark Bittman tried to calculate the cost of our national love affair with the fast food hamburger. In the article he tried to differentiate the low price of the meal from the high cost of the meal. You see, the cost is much higher than the price. We pay the extra fees by living in a world that tries so hard to keep the price down.
Giving us low-price beef costs the world in many damaging ways. Here in the US, the beef that we get in those low price meals are forced to live the last six months of their lives in ‘feed lots’ where there can be ten thousand animals or more on a lot, where the recommendation is that they get 300 square feet of room per animal. That comes up to 145 cows on a plot of land the size of a football field. For six months they don’t eat grass, but a combination of roughage and grain. They stand in their and their neighbor’s wastes. The closeness and the change in diet forces them to consume antibiotics so that epidemic diseases do not flourish among the inmates. This is done so that it doesn’t take a year or two of eating grass on the range to achieve their final weight. It is done to save money, to keep the price low. One cost is in the product, which finishes it’s life in stress, meats and fats marbled with unnatural omega 6 oils, instead of nature’s intended omega 3 oils. To make matters worse, now the price isn’t even low. We are getting 100% of the bad effects and very little of the low costs. As of today’s post, ground beef in Kansas City is over three dollars per pound. Another cost is to the land, where the wastes are concentrated in such a small area that nearby streams are polluted with both the wastes and the chemicals used in these operations, like antibiotics, hormones and cleaning solutions, that are excess and eliminated by the animals.
Since the feeds for these animals are intended to quickly bring them to market weight, they must be high in energy, and they must themselves be low-priced. Corn and soy are used because these grains are subsidized by the federal government, so that the price paid by the feedlot consumer is less than the price paid for the grain to the farmer. We all share the cost of the grain, a little in our taxes, a little in the price of the meats. A small portion of your tax bill is paying for the profits on the beef in your fast food hamburger. If you don’t eat fast food hamburgers, you are still paying in to keep the price low to the consumer. To keep the cost of your feedlot corn down, the farmer is using corn that is genetically modified to not be susceptible to the Roundup herbicide. A side effect of this is that there is no longer enough milkweed in North America to sustain the monarch butterfly’s primary food source, milkweed. Milkweed is susceptible to the Roundup. Entire States that used to produce myriad food crops are now gigantic deserts of corn and soybeans. Honeybees cannot penetrate this landscape because it is devoid of food for them. The soil is damaged so must be amended with fertilizer to grow the crops in ever denser bushels per acre. All of this is to save pennies per bushel. The price must be kept low, and there is no concern about the cost. Excess fertilizers wash out of the fields, into streams and lakes, where the nitrogen causes algae to bloom and the mineral impurities which damage streams and soils alike. Densely grown crops are also irrigated to keep their prices low, and irrigation causes problems too. Salts are dissolved uphill and emerge downhill, where they solidify on the surface of the soils, rendering them dead to any food plant. Correcting this problem takes years of dedication by the farmer. This cost is not factored into the price of the grain.
Fertilizer is not free, it also costs the world. The phosphorus in the fertilizer is from phosphoric acid and phosphate rock. Created at a chemical plant, the fertilizer is a mixture of nitrogen, ammonia and phosphoric acid. There is energy consumed at every phase from making or mining the raw ingredients and shipping them to the factory, to the energy needed to put the fertilizers on the fields. This expenditure of energy should be compared to the energy required to just allow the natural processes by which nitrogen gets into the soil from the plants themselves. Just allowing the plants to work together with the organisms in the soils to create natural foods would be pricier, but it would be less costly to the planet.
There are over three hundred million people in the US now. Feeding us all inexpensively requires more and more that we spend ever more energy, and cause ever more damage to the soil, the air and the water. Now we are finding out that keeping the price down is also causing us physical damage in the form of inflammatory fats and sugars in all of our manufactured foods.
Right now I can’t do anything about my portion of taxes that are being fed into this system. My part of changing the system though, is something that I am already doing. I won’t eat at a fast food place. I will get my meats from the farmer, have them processed myself. My foods are all whole and fresh, or canned by me in the summer when the real thing is available and plentiful. I can keep my personal costs low, and I will.
Thanks for posting this; it’s so important! I think everyone should read Bittman’s op-ed.
Appreciate the feedback. I wish these discussions didn’t have to involve so much math but…