Americans Eat the Cheapest Food in the World, But What is It Really Costing Us?

Rupert Taylor-Price/CC BY 2.0

USDA data shows that in 2010 Americans spent 9.4 percent of their disposable income on food, which equals 5.5 percent at home and 3.9 percent eating out. As a nation, we spend far less of a percentage on our food than we ever have before. For example, in 1929 we spent 23.4 percent of our disposable income on food, which equaled 20.3 percent at home and 3.1 percent eating out.

Not only are we spending much less of our money on the foods we eat, we eat out far more than ever before, buying fatty processed and fast foods laden with saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars. When compared to other countries, our food is by far the cheapest.

According to Carpe Diem:

The 5.5% of disposable income that Americans spend on food at home is less than half the amount of income spent by Germans (11.4%), the French (13.6%), the Italians (14.4%), and less than one-third the amount of income spent by consumers in South Africa (20.1%), Mexico (24.1%), and Turkey (24.5%), which is about what Americans spent DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION, and far below what consumers spend in Kenya (45.9%) and Pakistan (45.6%).

But let’s be clear, it’s not like we’re getting a deal overall. The big picture is much more grim because of the ecological ramifications of our industrialized food system. It also means we're spending more than ever on healthcare because we’re so absurdly overweight. If Americans continue to pack on pounds, obesity will cost us about $344 billion in medical-related expenses by 2018, eating up about 21 percent of healthcare spending, according to an article in USA Today. Not to mention the unseen health issues associated with a genetically modified and pesticide-bathed food system.

Before Organic Was Organic

With American industrialization came the changing face of a food system which was once locally driven. While we’ve used pesticides on our crops since the turn of the 20th century, the sheer quantity has risen to epic proportions. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first shined a light on the ecological ramifications of potent pesticide use. And then Robert Papendick, a USDA soil scientist wrote the Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming in 1980, which is largely thought to be the first official recognition by the USDA that organic farming was viable.

The dangers of overusing pesticides should have motivated a wide spread scaling back of their use. Instead, through the establishment of the National Organic Program in 1992, a small agricultural group was left untainted and conventional crops were left to wreak havoc on our environment and our bodies at a much cheaper price. Today farmers use five times as many pesticides on their crops as they did even 10 years ago.

GMOs Introduced

Genetically modified crops are the largest reason why the use of pesticides, especially Roundup, has gotten out of control to the detriment of our health. It’s only been since the mid-1990's that we saw the first approvals for large-scale commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops. But the change happened frighteningly fast and today, 94 percent of soybeans and 72 percent of corn is being grown this way.

Conventional foods are largely genetically modified and covered in pesticide residue. But recent findings are showing that Monsanto's Roundup can cause major health problems. A new study shows that even when it's diluted to .02 percent of what is sprayed on crops it can cause DNA damage. While they are much less expensive than their organic and sustainably produced counterparts, they don't do a body good.

qmnonic'/CC BY 2.0

Factory Farming, a Relatively Recent Disaster

Cheapening our food supply in such a real way has also caused undue harm to the animals that fall victim to our twisted pricing. Factory farming is another rather new phenomenon that didn’t come long until the 1960’s.

The Guardian wrote in 1964:

Factory farming, whether we like it or not, has come to stay. The tide will not be held back, either by the humanitarian outcry of well meaning but sometimes misguided animal lovers, by the threat implicit to traditional farming methods, or by the sentimental approach to a rural way of life.

And they were right, by 2005, factory farming accounted for 40 percent of the global meat supply. Not only has its growth meant the gross suffering of animals and a huge weight on the planet, it's also meant the onset of superbugs. According to the National Academy of Sciences, roughly 70 percent of the antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs used in the U.S. are fed to farm animals in order to promote growth and prevent rampant disease from striking animals that are kept in filthy, stressful environments. In fact, many common bacteria (such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and E. coli) have developed a resistance to available antibiotics.

In the end, the new corporate structure of our food system has cheapened our diets in a way the world has never seen. While food may cost less in the U.S., it’s costing us more than we know in terms of our health, the health of the planet, and harm to the animals we choose to consume.

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Tags: Agriculture | Factory Farming | Genetically Modified Food | Pesticides

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