The hidden costs of cheap food

Many people want to eat well and feed their families wholesome, nutritious food, but in today’s tough economic climate many people feel they simply cannot afford to do so. Unfortunately when you compare the cost of real foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables with processed, packaged foods, they are often more expensive and it can seem like eating well is just not affordable. We also pay more for organically grown produce and ethically-raised animal products, which for many people may not seem feasible.

A big part of the problem is that here in Australia we’ve come to expect cheap food.  There are a number of reasons for this including the industrialization of farming methods and the domination by the supermarket duopolies, both of which have resulted in reduced food prices. This may seem like a good thing but what about the hidden costs of this seemingly cheap food?

Something we all need to realize is that the cheap food we’ve come to expect is unsustainable and that the costs of cheap food will ultimately have to be paid by someone or by something somewhere down the line. Some of the hidden costs of cheap food include:

Our health

The biggest causes of poor health in Australia are the so-called lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, and a poor diet has a big role to play. The costs of poor health to both us as individuals and to society as a whole are huge, in terms of the economic costs (lost productivity, health care costs etc.) as well as the effects on quality of life.

Animal welfare

When you buy cheap, factory-farmed meat, eggs and dairy products you are, albeit unwittingly, contributing to the suffering of animals. Producers are only able to keep the prices of these products low by farming en masse using intensive production systems. This means the intense confinement of animals where they are unable to exhibit their natural behaviours, such as the use of battery cages for laying hens and sow stalls for pregnant pigs.  Factory-farmed animals are often subject to painful mutilations without the use anaesthesia or pain relief and are routinely fed antibiotics and sometimes hormones to promote growth and control disease.

Environmental costs

Large-scale industrialised farming relies heavily on use of chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers. Not only are these nasties no good for us (see our blog http://consumewithcare.org/the-problem-with-pesticides/), they also wreak havoc on our environment, polluting the soil, air and waterways. Land clearing to make way for farms is a major threat to biodiversity. According to a government-sponsored report from 2000, “…biodiversity is in decline in Australia, with all vertebrate groups affected.”  It goes on to say “The main reason for the declines is loss of habitat caused by over clearing of land for agriculture. “*


So while organically-grown produce and ethically-raised animal products do cost more, this reflects the true costs of sustainable farming and raising animals in a humane and ethical way. The extra money you spend at the checkout now is offsetting some of the damaging externalized costs of our current food system. Why not use your purchasing power to send a message to companies about what you believe in and what you are willing to support. If enough people do this, then we just might have a revolution on our hands! Imagine a win-win situation where companies profit by selling more and more healthy foods that are better for people, animals and the planet.


*  Declining Biodiversity and Unsustainable Agricultural Production-Common Cause, Common Solution?  http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp0102/02RP02


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