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Biophile Magazine -- » The true cost of cheap food

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." Dalai Lama

The true cost of cheap food

by Glenn Ashton

FILED IN: Issue 4 · Sustainability


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When buying anything in this modern age we all tend to buy the most cheaply priced articles. We buy not so much for value as for cheapness, ignoring the real costs of our false economies, for that is what they are when carefully examined.


Cheap clothing is manufactured by abusing human rights, using sweat shops in nations without labour protections and by the abuse of national and international trade distorting subsidisation, tax breaks and the likes. Nike has copped a lot of flak for their past practices of sweatshop labour and books such as Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” accurately analyse the background to these inherent problems that are driving our markets toward their inevitable self destruction by concentrating wealth amongst the already rich by raw exploitation of people and the environment.

Just as our cheap clothing exploits people, cheap food exploits the environment. By buying cheap food we support environmentally destructive farming practices, we support farming that is increasingly industrialised, chemically based and unsustainable. And needless to say we also support GM products, the first living products that have been patented and mass marketed.

I have just returned from a visit to the West Coast of South Africa, from an area known as the Sandveld. This semi-desert area supports over 7000 hectares of potato farming, all carried out by using centre pivot irrigation systems that daily delivers the equivalent of 8 mm of rain to the crop. That equates to 80, 000 liters of water, per hectare, per day. Just one such potato crop circle covering more than 10 hectares, uses more water than the largest town in the area, Lamberts Bay. There are hundreds of such circles in the area.

The fragile Strandveld vegetation is cleared by bulldozers and burned. No environmental impact analysis of the area is required before the vegetation is cleared, despite its specialisation and uniqueness. This is also despite this area belonging to the Cape Floristic kingdom, recently declared South Africa’s fourth world heritage site. The area also falls into the proposed Cederberg Biological Reserve, which will run from the inland mountains to the coast.

After the area is cleared and the massive pumping equipment installed, fertilisers and pesticides are applied in a heavily chemically reliant regime. A crop of potatoes is then harvested after using vast amounts of precious water from the aquifer of a semi-desert area. The circle is left to lie fallow for the next 4 years.

With nothing to hold the sand together it becomes airborne, creating an effective dustbowl over the area of the circle. The vegetation will never recover; neither will the associated biodiversity.

The fauna, the flora and the microbial life yet to be classified is effectively lost forever.

All for a “cheap” pocket of potatoes
The real costs and value of the water, the environmental value of the land and the biodiversity are all ignored factors in the production of our food. If the water is saline, or brak, as most of the water in that area is, even greater volumes need to be applied to wash the salt through the soil and to prevent salt build-up from rendering the soil useless. Because of the porosity of the sand in the area – it’s not known as the Sandveld for nothing! – most of the fertiliser and chemicals are leached through the soil to return to the groundwater, further damaging this valuable resource.

Many of the areas along the coastal zone are extracting water that lies well below sea level. This will only encourage encroachment of seawater into the water table further damaging the ground water.

It is obvious to all but the blind that what is happening on the Sandveld is unsustainable, to put it mildly. One wag in the area said that what the Sandveld was presently producing was not potatoes but water contained within potato peels.

Given the extraordinarily high evaporation rates in the area a large proportion of water applied to these fields is lost to the atmosphere by evaporation. This in turn increases the risk of salination of the soil, inevitably rendering it useless for agriculture and unable to be rehabilitated. Potato farming is turning the semi-desert into desert.

The Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, in present day Iraq and Iran, the home of global agriculture was once a lush, temperate region. The increased pressure of agriculture, coupled to irrigation, salination, destruction of forests (the last forest in the region was cut down by the Ottoman army in the early 20th century in Jordan), inevitably transformed this once lush but fragile region into desert over the course of a few millennia. This was the real cause behind the collapse in the empires of Assyria and Phoenicia.

While human intervention has only recently been recognised of being capable of altering our global ecosystems, hindsight has shown us how the Sahara, a sparsely grassed expanse of seem-desert a mere 10 000 years ago was turned into desert by nomadic grazers and possibly by the use of fire. The great empire of Carthage in North Africa declined because of similar human induced local biological and climate change consequences on the North African coast. Carthage was once a primary supplier of food to imperial Rome.

This serves to illustrate how local ecosystems are being affected; we have a proven ability to impact regional, continental and global support systems.

This is neither the direct fault of the farmer or of the consumer. The real problem that drives this is the so-called free market system. I say ‘so-called’ as the free market system as theoretically envisaged and as sold to us all through advertising, corporate public relations and industrialisation friendly government spokespersons is anything but a free market system.


Markets are distorted by subsidies, by concentration of mega retail companies like Wal-Mart and Pick ‘n Pay, that have survived and thrived by their purchasing power driving prices for producers ever lower while increasing profit from consumers under the guise of bulk purchasing. The free market is in fact anything but free. Just try to start a supermarket or an airline and you will rapidly find out how the odds are stacked against you by the established players who have figured out the system and who milk it for all it is worth.

But more relevant is the role that the free market plays in destroying our agricultural environment. Cheap is good goes the mantra of the buyer. Farmers are pitted against each other and inadvertently against nature in their attempt to produce their food as cheaply as possible.

Of course environmental costs, such as excessive water use, destruction of habitat, pollution of watercourses and so forth are never factored in as a cost of production. Instead they are externalised and passed on to future generations to deal with. Under the ‘rules’ of the free market system greed pays, conservation does not.

How do we turn this around?
Solutions to complex issues are seldom simple but we do have the ways and means to turn this around.

The first and most obvious solution is to buy wisely and support farmers who practice ecologically sound farming practices such as organic farming, permaculture and modern integrated sustainable farming practices. These seek to reduce the impacts on the environment, to reduce chemical and pesticide inputs and to build soil rather than deplete it.

And no, the present GM crops on the market do not hold out any hope of assisting us in any of these goals, despite the corporate hype. The present GM varieties on the market will exacerbate not diminish the problem.

A second solution is to demand that farming practices that do damage the environment have subsidies removed and that sustainable farming practices are actively supported and subsidised to the same extent as industrial mono-crop farming practices are at present.

The third and most important is to inform ourselves, our neighbourhood, our children and our nations. An informed population is the only way to save ourselves from ourselves. As Sir Norman Angell warned us years ago, “The vested interests – if we explain the situation by their influence – can only get the public to act as they wish by manipulating public opinion, by playing either upon the public’s indifference, confusions, prejudices, pugnacities or fears.

And the only way in which the power of the interests can be undermined and their manoeuvres defeated is by bringing home to the public the danger of its indifference, the absurdity of its prejudices, or the hollowness of its fears; by showing that it is indifferent to danger where real danger exists; frightened by dangers which are non-existent.”

We won’t starve if we farm sensibly
We can change the world for the better, not the worse. Most global food production goes toward feeding animals for the meat market. We do not need to eat as much meat as most of us do. Meat consumption is cumulatively one of the most environmentally destructive practices in which humanity engages. The best bet would be to have the world become vegetarian. We could realistically cut meat consumption and production by 90% with little difficulty. This would have a massive positive contribution.

We must ask ourselves where the food that we select from featureless supermarket shelves originates. Those of us who do not actively participate in conscious, wise purchasing patterns are as implicit in the destruction of our world as an oil baron or as a corrupt politician. And have not most politicians been corrupted by the siren song of the corporate greed machine, itself driven by the impossible lure of ever increasing profits?

Only by arming ourselves with sufficient levels of knowledge and then using that information to act in a consciously responsible manner can we work our way out of the conundrum that enmeshes us all. The escape route is clear; we must simply share our common vision of a better world and then live it.

The time for talking is over; the time for action is now.

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