The Real Cost of Food

Since the beginning of time, food has been central in society.  Providing food and eating has been a group activity since the beginning of man. Men hunted together, and women gathered berries, and they then both congregated to eat.  Over the years, food has become a central part of every social event.  But what is food costing us?  Food was a means for survival, a way to develop cultural identity, and a means to a societal connection.  Today, however, the food industry has become the largest sector of the global economy and is costing us so much more than we think. 

Understanding the Food Industry

The food industry mainly consists of four distinct sectors: farming, production, processing, and marketing.  Although each performs different tasks in the food industry, they are all interdependent. 

In 2020, the global food market generated over 8 trillion US dollars worldwide.   Agricultural production has an estimated value of 5 trillion dollars, and the world’s farmers produced enough food to feed 1.5 times the global population.    With annual revenue of more than 34 billion dollars, Ontario is the third-largest in food processing in North America.  Nestlé, the largest food and beverage brand worldwide had annual revenue of 99.73 billion USD in 2018.  The market size of full-service restaurants worldwide is estimated to account for 1.2 trillion USD in revenue for 2020.  What do all these statistics tell you?  There is big money in food, and that is where the problem starts.

The Politics of Food

Most people have no idea where our food comes from, how it is produced, and what substances it may contain.  The current food supply system has encouraged people to think that food comes from multinational companies rather than farmers and the earth.  Food, beverage, and restaurant companies spend almost 14 billion dollars per year on advertising in the United States alone.   Studies have shown that for every dollar spent on food by the average consumer, only 11 cents can be accounted for by farmers, while the rest split amongst the producers, suppliers, and marketers. 

In 1944 at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, a conference was held to create an institution to facilitate economic growth and global trade – one that included the food industry.  This conference established the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).  In 1994, member nations of the GATT created the World Trade Organization (WTO) to set trade rules and settle disputes between countries.

The emerging problem is that large, multinational food companies wield the most power in any WTO negotiations.  These companies, often based in industrialized nations, decide what happens with food.  Supermarkets also exert their form of pressure on food production by manufacturing their own “private” label products, often by sourcing cheaper raw ingredients overseas rather than locally.  Because of the competitive and global nature of the food system, farmers have sacrificed ecological sustainability for higher productivity.

What matters is the bottom dollar – not what you eat and not what happens to the land around us.

Environmental Costs

Currently, approximately half of Earth’s usable land is for agriculture.  We are deforesting land and destroying rainforests every day to farm livestock.  With global meat consumption nearly doubled in the past 50 years and showing no signs of slowing down, we need to find a solution.

Our current agricultural system affects so much of our ecology, even with modern organic farms.  It reduces water quality through pollution by the use of fertilizers and pesticides.  The statistics are alarming.  Studies have shown that between 30% and 50% of nitrogen fertilizers and approximately 45% of phosphorus fertilizers are absorbed by crops.  The remainder stays in the environment.  According to estimates, agriculture contributes 10% to 12% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions globally. And let’s not forget the carbon emissions generated during transport. 

We are a society that has learned to discard and replace.  Annually we generate 2.01 billion tons of waste, with at least 33% not managed in an environmentally safe manner.  According to a United Nations report, an estimated 17% of the food produced globally is wasted.  That amounts to over 1 billion tons of food.

Human Costs

Aside from the environment, there is the human dilemma – half the world is obese, the other half is starving. 

In 2018, 26.8% of Canadians 18 and older (approximately 7.3 million adults) were classified as obese.  Another 9.9 million adults were considered overweight.  Even more alarming is that the direct healthcare cost of obesity in Canada is estimated to be between 4.6 billion and 7.1 billion CAD.  The amount of fats and oils in food has increased by 22%, and the consumption of sugars by 23%.  Our food system, designed to provide fast, cheap, and convenient food, has affected both consumers and the economy.

On the flip side of the coin, the WHO provided statistics about worldwide famine – about 820 million people don’t have adequate nutrition.   And this does not mean just third world countries.   According to the USDA, more than 35 million people in the United States experienced hunger in 2019.  In Canada, 1 in 8 households was food insecure.  That amounted to 4.4 million people.  With rising costs, some simply cannot afford to eat.

What Can I Do?

There are a few things that each one of us can do to help. 

The first is to buy local whenever possible. Buying local is a small way to support local farming businesses, which is good for the economy. It also decreases the effects of transportation and packaging on the environment. If space permits, why not grow some produce in your backyard in the summer?  

Next, pay attention to your body and its needs. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. Read labels, noting the fat, sugar, and salt content. Support initiatives that legislate tighter regulations on the food industry to limit these ingredients and support the educational programs that teach us about proper nutrition. Unsure of what to eat, when to eat it, and how often? You can consult a nutritionist, or download one of the many eating apps on your smartphone to help you keep track of your intake.  

Recycle and reuse. The amount of waste we generate is staggering. Right now, we need 1.79 Earths to manage our waste and counting. By composting, not only are methane emissions significantly reduced but also the need for chemical fertilizers eliminated. 

Support local food drives.  The simple, sad fact is that some families cannot afford to purchase food.  Even donating one dollar gives the local food bank up to five times the buying power to purchase needed foods.  If you don’t feel comfortable with monetary donations, cereals and dry pantry goods are always a good idea.

Finally, look for advancing technology. Just like anything else, science is entering the field of food. Nutrigenomics is a new hybrid field that combines genetics and nutrition science. Since each person’s genetic makeup varies, DNA analysis can assess what food we should or should not consume. Sounds like something out of Star Trek? There is so much more on the horizon, but that’s a blog for another day.


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