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Daily News Blog

23
Jul

Report Finds True Cost of Food in 2019 Was $2.1 Trillion in Adverse Health, Environmental, and Other Effects

(Beyond Pesticides, July 23, 2021) The Rockefeller Foundation has just published a report, True Cost of Food: Measuring What Matters to Transform the U.S. Food System, which identifies the real-but-under-recognized downsides of the U.S. food system. The report notes that, for all its reputed bounty, the food system “comes with hidden costs — to our health, to our climate,” and to the many people who make sure that food reaches the population. The report calls for a true accounting of the costs of food in the U.S.

Beyond Pesticides welcomes the broad framework of the report, but notes that a true accounting would necessarily include the costs of the externalities of conventional agriculture, including those related to pesticides: the costs of pollution and its cleanup (when that even happens), of lost pollination and biodiversity, of lost productivity from illness, and of health care costs related to pesticide use. Remarkably, for all its repetition of deleterious impacts on climate, biodiversity, and health, the report barely mentions either pesticides’ roles in causing such impacts, or the clear solution to so many of the negatives in the food system — organic, regenerative agriculture.

The report’s economic analysis applies a true cost accounting (TCA) framework to assessing the real costs and impacts of the current system. It asserts, “Our food system is failing us, and too few people understand the true cost of the food we consume, and lack clear incentives to change a system that is costing us dearly. That’s why accounting for the true cost of the food we eat is the first, necessary step towards remaking the incentive structure that drives our food system today.”

The report identifies primary areas impacted by food production and consumption: environment, human health, biodiversity, livelihoods, and the economy. By its own admission, the report’s analysis focused only on primary impacts of the food system; thus, it did not include downstream impacts, such as secondary impacts on the environment, national security, or educational outcomes (due to nutrition insecurity). It also sought to explore the impacts of both animal welfare and resilience, and to examine ways in which equity issues impact true costs.

The report says that communities of color bear disproportionately the costs of the food system, particularly in health outcomes related to pollution, nutrition insecurity, and environmental injustices. It notes that Black and Brown Americans, who work disproportionately in the food system, shoulder greater proportional burdens related to exposures to pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, and bear greater economic impacts related to livelihoods (e.g., lower typical wages than for White Americans), as well as discriminatory impacts of agricultural subsidies.

The essential rationale of the report’s focus on the need for TCA is that it is impossible to transform a system until the real costs and benefits of it are known. The report asserts, “This lack of transparency and the absence of a codified, unified framework to quantify the ‘true cost’ of the food system means that there is neither a clear line of sight into such costs, nor incentives to reduce these true costs and optimize for the true benefits of food through public spending and private investments.”

Those “hidden costs” of food the report mentions are invisible to most people: they do not show up in the amounts on consumers’ grocery store receipts because they comprise the externalities the current system fails to account for in most analysis or discussion of food costs. Certain kinds of food costs are represented in the sticker price of food items: those for land, transportation, storage, distribution, and wages of food system workers.

But other significant costs — termed “externalized” because they are not borne by the companies that comprise much of the food system, but are directly or indirectly thrust on the public in multiple ways — do not show up in typical food cost accounting. Those include “downstream” costs of the current food system for: healthcare for diet-related illnesses and other health impacts; loss of ecosystem functioning and biodiversity because of pesticide use, habitat loss, and climate change; agricultural subsidies; pollution of water, soil, and air; inadequate wages for many food workers; and the myriad negative impacts climate change, among others.

Food expenditures — what consumers pay for food of every sort — for 2019 totaled $1.1 trillion. The sum of all the externalized costs that are not covered in the price of food was roughly $2.1 trillion. Together, this means that the real costs of how food was grown, raised, cleaned, processed, transported, distributed, and sold plus all the externalized costs totaled to at least $3.2 billion for that year. Those externalized costs, the report says, were related primarily to human health and environmental impacts, calculated at $1.1 trillion and nearly $900 billion, respectively.

This reports follows on one The Rockefeller Foundation did in 2020 — Reset the Table: Meeting the Moment to Transform the U.S. Food Systemthat focused on the hunger and nutrition crisis in the U.S. that was present but newly underscored and amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic. That 2020 report endorsed three transitions it called necessary “to transform the U.S. food system to make it more efficient, equitable, healthy, and resilient, both in good times and bad.” Those are: (1) a better integrated nutrition security system, (2) reinvigorated regional food systems, and (3) equitable prosperity throughout the supply chain.

The three top-level findings of this report, reflected in its organization, are: (1) there is urgent need to transform the U.S. food system; (2) the true cost of the U.S. food system is three times what is spent on food; and (3) a better understanding of these costs can provide a foundation for a successful transformation of the U.S. food system.

The 2020 report was oriented around the food/hunger crisis, particularly as it was amplified through the pandemic. This current report says, “The Covid-19 pandemic revealed how unfit our food system is for the 21st century. Knowing the true cost of our food system . . . is the right first step toward making it better, less costly, and less risky. With this kind of analysis, governments, advocates, corporations, and even individuals have the tools and the power to catalyze the systems-level change needed to develop a truly nourishing, equitable, and regenerative food system. . . . We need holistic and transformational change to build a food system that provides healthy and affordable food for all consumers; fair, livable wages, and safe working conditions for workers; viable farming options for rural communities; and efficient and sustainable use of our natural resources, to name a few. We need a system that protects the environment and human health.”

Beyond Pesticides is in agreement with most of the report’s aspirational framework and guidance. However, if the laudable goals are to be realized, the framework must recognize, specifically identify, and forward two realities: (1) the many damaging impacts from synthetic pesticide (and fertilizer) use in U.S. agriculture, and (2) that “regenerative” agriculture and practices cannot achieve the identified goals unless they are organic regenerative practices. Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides (and former member of the National Organic Standards Board) has said, “Pesticide reduction strategies that allow continued use of toxic substances undermine the soil biology and biodiversity that is critical to healthy plants and unnecessary to achieving pest management goals.”

When evaluating pesticide registration applications, EPA does not require data demonstrating “benefits” against which health and environmental risks may be weighed. That kind of calculation only takes place years down the line, if EPA believes there is reason to consider canceling a pesticide’s registration. On the other hand, the existence of organic producers fueling $62 billion in organic sales in the U.S., with virtually all commodities being now grown and processed without toxic pesticides, indicates that a true cost accounting of pesticide use would find pesticide risks unreasonable under the “unreasonable adverse effects” standard of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). According to Terry Shistar, PhD, Beyond Pesticides board member: “Although not all of the unaccounted costs identified by the Rockefeller Foundation are directly attributable to pesticide use, many are and should factor into EPA’s pesticide registration process. That process should compare those costs, as well as those already identified by EPA, to the organic farming alternative. If the risks can be eliminated by organic farming, then they are unnecessary—and, therefore, unreasonable.”

Beyond Pesticides has written extensively about pesticide impacts throughout the organization’s history and across many sectors (see, e.g., the Programs navigation on the website homepage). More recently, it has covered the emerging issue of “regenerative” agriculture, as that has enjoyed greater exposure in public policy discussions. Indeed, The Rockefeller Report repeatedly mentions “regenerative” approaches to agricultural production, in the contexts of animal welfare, soil status, climate mitigation.

The “regenerative” movement has focused largely on conservation tillage (i.e., “no till”) practices that help maintain soil structure, as well as on increasing carbon-based (organic) matter in soil, cover cropping, and crop rotations — all of which improve and support soil health. However, as a 2019 Friends of the Earth report noted, “Data indicate that the majority of no-till farmers rely on herbicides such as glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.” “Regenerative” practices in concert with continued use of toxic inputs — synthetic pesticides and fertilizers — are self-defeating. They may sequester more carbon in the soil, but at the same time, the use of these toxic compounds destroys soil biota and causes increased emissions of nitrous oxide (NOx), a greenhouse gas.

Promotion of regenerative agriculture shows up especially in discussions of mitigation of climate emissions and impacts, given that agriculture and forestry account for as much as 25% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Regenerative approaches are widely considered as an important one of the solutions for reducing (or even reversing) these impacts.

However, as Beyond Pesticides recently wrote, “A movement by promoters of chemical-intensive agriculture has fooled some environmentalists into supporting toxic ‘regenerative’ agriculture. The so-called ‘regenerative agriculture’ promoted by these groups ignores the direct climate impacts of nitrogen fertilizers, the damage to soil health caused by pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and the fact that pesticide and fertilizer manufacturing is dependent on fossil fuels, both as key ingredients and for the heat and energy driving chemical reactions. It is important to see through this deception.”

Organic regenerative practices, however, do reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts: organically managed agricultural soils can sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon, and organic practices reduce emissions of NOx. Also, re: the very goals The Rockefeller Foundation report extolls, organic practices broadly deployed would virtually eliminate many of the negative human health, biodiversity, and equity impacts of the current food system. Systems that are organic and regenerative in approach represent the optimum for achieving the goals set out in The Rockefeller Report.

Support for such systems is growing. For example, the Rodale Institute has begun to promote a new certification developed through the Regenerative Organic Alliance: Regenerative Organic CertifiedTM (ROC). This certification, which seeks to label food grown with organic, regenerative approaches, specifically disallows any synthetic inputs.

The Rodale website says, “Though the USDA Certified Organic seal continues to be a rigorous standard, it has some gaps when it comes to soil health and animal welfare requirements. Most importantly, it omits the treatment of farmers and farm workers. Many brands, farmers, ranchers, and nonprofits felt that a more holistic standard could go above and beyond the organic label. . . . [The ROC standard] uses the USDA Certified Organic standard as a baseline. From there, it adds important criteria and benchmarks that incorporate the three major pillars of regenerative organic agriculture [— soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness —] into one certification.”

The Rockefeller Report asserts, “If left unaddressed, the true cost of food will continue to rise and negatively contribute to climate change, the prevalence of diet-related diseases, and growing inequity. We need a formal integration of a true cost accounting framework into decision-making processes in public policy, private and public investments, and systems design.”

Some shifts are already under way in the U.S. food ecosystem, according to the report, such as efforts to improve nutrition safety nets and align government procurement with a TCA approach; increasing governmental support for (especially) Black, Indigenous, and small-scale producers; some federal regulatory effort to educate and incentivize the public re: better food choices; and efforts in the private sector to improve nutritional food access and integrate it into healthcare, among others. The report provides access to a searchable database of actions and innovations that could benefit from a TCA approach.

The authors conclude: “We must accurately calculate the full cost we pay for food today to successfully shape economic and regulatory incentives tomorrow. A better appreciation for food’s true cost can help those trying to provide healthy and affordable food for all consumers. It can lead to better long-term decision making about fair, livable wages, and safe conditions for all workers. It can promote innovation to deliver more viable farming methods for rural farmers. And it can help protect, not harm, our planet. By approaching food and the food system as an investment, and understanding its downstream returns, we have the potential to not only lower our true cost of food bill, but also transform the food system.”

Beyond Pesticides concurs, with the proviso that toxic inputs in agriculture need to be phased out as rapidly as possible. Executive Director Jay Feldman comments, “‘Regenerative’ without specific criteria, standards, and enforcement will not expedite the necessary changes to our food production system. ‘Organic’ is the only standard that embraces the values embraced by the report. But this report can and should serve, with that modification, as a springboard for real and meaningful transformation of our food system.”

Source: https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/True-Cost-of-Food-Full-Report-Final.pdf

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

 

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