Growing plants, and hopefully, fixing our food system

It’s been hot here in Raleigh, though we haven’t been having massive fires, storms, droughts, or floods, unlike some others.  For this I’m grateful, but the heat and humidity have kept me inside more than usual.  I did get up to Raulston Arboretum one afternoon, and was happy to see these flowers and insects. 

Happily, it’s peach season here, and I got some peaches at the State Farmer’s Market.  It was good seeing the farmers and their good looking fruits and vegetables.  The peaches were juicy and quite delicious.

Getting satisfying, nourishing food doesn’t have to be complicated, but in fact, for many, it’s not happening.  Eating well is surely the most important thing we as individuals can do for our health, and irresponsible food production is among the worst things we as a society do to the planet.  But with so many other problems to worry about, food usually doesn’t get much attention.

So I was pleased this week to see a major new report from the Rockefeller Foundation titled True Cost of Food:  Measuring What Matters to Transform the U.S. Food System.  The Rockefeller report takes a wide-angle view of the costs and benefits of the food system as it stands, and how it could be improved.  

The report makes clear that the existing system does a poor job in providing healthy and affordable food, but also fails in other key respects — providing unlivable wages, unsafe working conditions, inequitable treatment of minority communities, wasting natural resources, hastening climate change, and hurting biodiversity.

The Rockefeller researchers found that the out-of-pocket cost Americans pay for food is about a third of the true cost.  That is, we spend $1.1 trillion a year directly on food.  But the true cost of our food comes to at least $3.2 trillion, once we take account of rising health care costs caused by our food, low wages and lack of benefits, the system’s contribution to climate change and pollution, water and land degradation, and other losses.  

The total costs just from diet-related conditions and diseases, including health care for obesity, hypertension, cancer, and diabetes, cost us $1.145 trillion — that is, considerably more than the out-of-pocket cost of our food. 

The Rockefeller report effectively brings into view some of the worst problems of our food system, but, as it acknowledges, it does not account for a number of other costs, like impaired military readiness, poor mental health, and lower educational achievement.  It also leaves out the cost of animal suffering, which, it says, could not be monetized.  

This is worth discussing more.  According to the report, more than 10 billion farm animals are killed each year for food.  It’s possible to think about this suffering not just in ethical terms, but in monetary terms.  For example, for governmental purposes, officials calculate the value of human lives at around $10 million a piece.  

If we valued animal suffering at much less — say, .001 percent of a human life for the suffering of a cow, pig, or chicken — the total yearly cost of suffering for each executed animal would be $100.  By this measure, the total annual cost of all the animal suffering caused by our food system would be an additional $1 trillion.  

However you decide to do the math, our food system causes enormous animal suffering.  Faced with the scale of such a horror, it’s easy to lose heart, but the Rockefeller report also reminds us that there are viable ways to start remediation.  One is, as it politely puts it, “decreasing animal protein consumption.”    

On another hopeful note, there were a couple of worthwhile interviews last week with one of my heroes, Jane Goodall. Goodall, now 87, started her career as a primatologist, making pioneering discoveries about the intellectual abilities and social organizations of chimps which ran contrary to what most scientists then believed.  She helped change the boundaries of our thinking about the intelligence and emotional lives of these and other animals, helping us understand that they are not as different from us as we’d thought. There’s a Vox interview in which she talks about some of this here, and a NY Times interview here. I

In recent years her work has focused on conservation efforts.  As much as anyone, she understands the dire environmental situation that all living beings now face as a result of human activity.  Yet she refuses to give up hope.  That’s now a big part of her message: we’re running out of time, but there’s still time for us to make a difference. She has a new book coming out in the fall, and has no plans to retire.