Every now and then I’ll hear an ad on the radio for super cheap food, like Wendy’s 4 for $4, or boneless skinless chicken breast for $1.79 per pound. This makes me cringe. Whether it’s fast food, or conventional food from the grocery store, the fact is, food just isn’t that cheap. Period.

In Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms states, “you can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.” Sadly, however, it’s difficult to see this distinction when the focus is placed solely on getting the most bang for your buck or finding the best deals in town. We are a society and culture of people who value low cost and convenience, and we hate feeling as though we’ve been ripped off. Why would I spend $7.99 for a pound of chicken when I can get it for $1.79?

You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food. - Joel Salatin Click To Tweet

If, in fact, all food were created equal, of course it wouldn’t make sense to opt for more expensive options. But in reality, most of the cheap food that is oh-so-common these days comes with a laundry list of hidden costs, both financial and otherwise.

true cost of cheap food

Government subsidies 

According to estimates from 2009, the USDA distributes somewhere between $10 billion and $30 billion in cash subsidies for crops each year, 90% of which goes to corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. What’s more, the majority of corn produced each year is actually used for two purposes – as ethanol, and as food for industrially raised animals, which makes the price of corn fed beef, chicken, and other meats artificially low.

Animal welfare – pain and suffering

Speaking of corn-fed meat, the life of an animal raised in an industrial concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) – often fed corn – is dismal to say the least. Chickens, for instance, are packed by the thousands in sheds so that they can barely move and never see the light of day, breathe fresh air, peck at bugs, or scratch the earth. Pigs (very smart animals I might add) are crammed in tiny pens so that they cannot even move, and are forced to spend their lives on hard concrete rather than being able to root around in the mud as they do naturally. Cows spend their lives wading around in their own manure! These inhumane and unnatural CAFOs exist for the sole purpose of producing animal products quickly and inexpensively. (Read more about CAFOs here and here).

Environmental Damage

To grow food efficiently and maximize profits, big agriculture relies heavily on the excess use of herbicides and pesticides which end up polluting our environment. These chemicals can seep into the groundwater or make their way to rivers and lakes through run off, contaminating our water supply and poisoning marine life. Pesticides have been implicated in threatening the population of honeybees, bats, and frogs. Additionally, the use of excess herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, as well as intensive plowing and lack of crop rotation (all practices in conventional industrial agriculture) can erode soil quality, resulting in unproductive and unusable farmlands and further pollution.

Animal byproducts amassed in CAFOs, too, are hazardous to the environment. Lagoons the size of football fields – filled liquefied animal manure, contaminated with heavy metals, antibiotics, animal hormones, and bacterial pathogens – contaminate our air and water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency also estimates that 9% of greenhouse gases in 2014 came from industrial agriculture, contributing to global warming and climate change.

Future healthcare costs of consumers 

The cost of preventable chronic diseases (which are impacted largely by nutrition) is startling. According to CDC estimates, in 2010 heart disease and stroke costs reached $315.4 billion and cancer care costs reached $157 billion. In 2012, diabetes costs were estimated to be $245 billion. It is estimated that 86% of health care spending in 2010 was for people with chronic disease. And of course, these estimates don’t even take into consideration the cost of other nutrition-related public health issues, such as antibiotic resistance and food-born illnesses.

Welfare of farmers

I’m not talking about costs to pay farmers welfare here. I’m talking about the security, well-being, health, and happiness of the men and women who produce our food! For many of these people’s welfare, industrial farming in order to produce cheap food poses quite the threat. Take, for example, industrial chicken farming. Most chicken farmers take on a substantial amount of risky debt (upwards of $1 million) to get started, and with unexpected costs and unreliable income, find themselves financially insecure and locked in an endless cycle of debt (read a more detailed overview of the issue here).

What’s more, in regards to physical health, many farmers are exposed daily to hazardous chemicals and pesticides. As discovered by the Agricultural Health Study, “farming communities have higher rates of leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma, as well as cancers of the skin, lip, stomach, brain, and prostate” which may be linked to increased exposure to “substances such as pesticides, engine exhausts, solvents, dusts, animal viruses, fertilizers, fuels, and specific microbes.”

Workers in confined hog production, who spend up to 8 hours a day in barns that house thousands of confined pigs, are constantly exposed to air contaminated with animal matter, dust, endotoxins, microbes, and various gases including ammonia, carbon dioxide, and methane. According to one study, “exposed workers report significantly higher frequencies of respiratory symptoms, chest illness, cold and pneumonia.”

The bottom line

I’m not saying some foods aren’t overpriced, but I am saying that cheap food isn’t actually as cheap as it seems. Many compromises and sacrifices to quality, safety, and morality are made in today’s big food industry for the sake of money. However, we pay the hidden costs of cheap food eventually, whether we like it or not. And quite honestly, given the pain, suffering, and irreversible damage of some of these hidden costs, I’d rather spend a little more at checkout!

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