True Cost

The seed of introduction:

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

~Franklin D. Roosevelt

Today, much traveled, highly processed and heavily marketed food has become so much the norm that many people no longer know where their food originates. Industrial Agriculture has heralded “cheap and plentiful food” as one of its greatest achievements.”~Menu for the Future, Chapter 2

Let’s examine the hidden costs of this food system – to farmers and farmland, to animals and to the environment.

“Large-scale industrial agriculture depends on engineering the land to ensure the absence of natural diversity. But as the recent emergence of herbicide-tolerant weeds on US farms has shown, nature ultimately finds a way to subvert uniformity and assert itself.”


Photo courtesy

Industrial animal food production has one goal: to turn creatures into meat. These intensively managed factory farms are called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s). The animals are chosen for rapid growth, ability to withstand confinement (some literally don’t have room to turn around), and resistance to the pathogens that grow in these conditions. Advocates say it’s an efficient way to produce, cheap, good-quality meat for consumers.

Opponents raise three basic complaints: first, the treatment of animals. CAFO’s house them as tightly as possible where they never see grass or sunlight. If you can envision 1,000 chickens in your bathroom in cages stacked to the ceiling, you’re honestly getting the picture.

A second complaint is pollution. So many animals in a small space put huge volumes of excrement into that small space, creating obvious waste storage and water quality problems. CAFO animals of the US produce about 6 times the volume of fecal matter of all humans on our planet. Animals on pasture, by contrast, enrich the soil.

A third issue is health. Confined animals are physically stressed and are routinely given antibiotics in their feed to ward off disease. [More than] ¾ of all antibiotics in the US are used in CAFO’s. Even so, the Consumer’s Union reported that over 70% of supermarket chickens harbored campylobacter and/or salmonella bacteria. The antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that grow in these conditions are a significant new threat to humans.


Art by Sue Coe. Toronto Pig Save

Currently, 98% of chickens in the US are produced by large corporations. If you have an opportunity to buy some of that 2%, a truly free-range chicken from a local farmer, it will cost a little more. So what’s the going price these days for compassion, clean water, and public health?”

~From Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver, and Steven Hopp (2007).

Let the conversation germinate and grow:

Are you willing to pay more for “compassion, clean water, and the public health” by purchasing humanely treated animal products? Why or why not?

If you eat fish, do you know where your seafood comes from? Even if you don’t eat seafood, are there choices you could make that would be better for the health of our oceans?

Practical Exercise:

As recently as two or three generations ago, it was possible for people to know where their food came from and what went into the process of getting it to their tables.  Today, most of us don’t give a lot of thought to these things. During the next week, select one meal, and write down everything that you eat and drink. Then do you your best to answer the following questions:

  • What factors did you consider in choosing what to eat at this meal?
  • Where did the food come from? Where was it grown? Where was it processed?
  • Most people find it difficult or impossible to answer the second Question. For which food was it hardest to find answers? Does it concern you?


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