At the beginning of the 20th century, American households spent about 20% of their disposable income on food. Food was expensive, it was local, and it was essentially ‘organic’ by today’s standards.
Following WWII, the United States created a policy of lowering the cost of food, primarily through farm subsidies that encouraged efficiency, centralization, and mechanization of our food supply. We now have some of the cheapest food in the world. We spend less than 10% of our disposal income on food, much less than any other country. For comparison, other high-income countries such as Canada and the U.K. spend an average of 16% of their income on food, while middle-income countries spend 35%, and low-income countries spend 55%. However, due to the ‘cheapness’ of food – not just its price, but also, its contents, we have an exploding obesity rate, rising healthcare costs, and we still have hunger in the United States. We are overfed and often malnourished.
So how is our food so inexpensive? The farm bill (funded by taxpayers) in combination with the industrialization of our food system (made possible by government subsides funded by taxpayers), effectively produces meat, dairy, and processed corn food products that are sold for less than the cost of production. Additionally, fruits and vegetables are imported from countries with tropical climates and low labor costs. When you take a closer look at our system, it becomes apparent that the price we pay at the supermarket doesn’t reflect the true cost of food.
The disparity between the cost of production and sale price is made possible by low wages, animal cruelty, and environmental pollution.
At the beginning of the 20th century, meat cutters at this country’s meat processing facilities could comfortably support a family and were proud of their profession. Now we pay poverty-level wages in meat-processing facilities, shifting the burden of providing for those workers and their families to government welfare programs like food stamps.
The animals have fared far worse than the people in most circumstances. Don’t be fooled by the pretty names and pictures on the packaging of grocery store items. Most food comes from industrialized farms where the animals are treated very poorly, often cruelly, all in the name of maintaining low costs.
We throw antibiotics at our sick livestock, pesticides and herbicides at our crops, all in the name of producing more for less. The environmental and health effects are catastrophic. We have depleted and contaminated aquifers and we have the long-term effects of the overuse of pesticides and herbicides to look forward to.
The system teeters along only because gasoline and corn are cheap and plentiful (thanks to subsidies).
One solution is transitioning to a smaller-scale farming system, one that utilizes sustainable levels of energy and limited chemical inputs to produce healthy food for the local community. Food that is produced with natural and sustainable methods is thought to be out of financial reach for the general public, but the truth is, the slightly higher cost of food produced in a sustainable system carries no hidden overheads; no crop subsidies, no massive energy costs, and no future burdens in the form of healthcare and ecological damage.
If you don’t grow your own food, get to know the people who do.