Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Food has gotten cheaper — but at what cost?

Those great bargains at the big box markets may not be as good as they look. Money is not the only cost. When calculating those, factor in health, environment, jobs, wages, working conditions, and even (maybe especially) the unquantifiable social and psychic costs of factory farming.  Tom Laskawy at Grist writes, 

I’ve noticed that quite a few Grist readers have been struck by our coverage of shockingly high food prices in Inuit communities in Canada’s far north. It’s less a story of life in extreme lands than the culmination of a historical destruction of indigenous peoples’ traditional foodways combined with a conservative government’s unwillingness to help them adapt. Photo by Nick Castonguay.

How appropriate then that NPR’s Planet Money, as part of its Graphing America series, should look at how America’s food spending has changed over the last 30 years. The headline figure — the one Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is proudest of — is that we spend just under 9 percent of our income on food, about 30 percent less than we did in 1982.

Image courtesy of NPR.
Despite the drop, our shopping baskets have stayed more or less the same — with one notable exception. Processed foods now take the lion’s share of our collective food spending — their share has doubled in the last 30 years. On a percentage basis, we’re spending about the same as we did back then on fruits and vegetables, dairy, bread, and even beverages. Spending on meat, however, has dropped by a third — some of that savings goes to other kinds of spending, of course, since overall food spending is down, but clearly some of the money formerly spent on meat has shifted to processed snacks, treats, and packaged foods.

....[M]eat prices demonstrate the most shocking price drop....As the meat industry consolidated, industrialized, and specialized, labor costs dropped — but rural unemployment soared. Meanwhile, the environmental costs of livestock farming, which were manageable when fewer animals in smaller farms were distributed over larger areas, were shifted, too.... There’s a human cost, too. Workers in the giant slaughterhouses that now dominate the meat industry labor in some of the worst workplace conditions in the country....Animal welfare went out the window with industrialization.... [T]his reduction in food spending...coincide[s] with the shift toward processed food and the onset of the obesity epidemic. We’re spending less for food, but we’re also clearly eating far worse.... 

You get what you pay for.

Read the complete article at Food has gotten cheaper — but at what cost? 

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