The Real Cost of Cheap Food


This is a summary of the article that appeared in the August 31st 2009 edition of Time Magazine by Bryan Walsh. Although it is US centered it includes some useful statistics for Geography teaching in the UK.

Story of Bacon (introduction from article)
Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won’t bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He’s fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he’ll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That’s the state of your bacon — circa 2009.

Summary of Article

Hidden price of unlimited quantities of meat and grain at cheap prices are:

  • Creeping erosion of fertile farmland.
  • Chickens so packed they can’t raise their wings.
  • Rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria among farm animals.

19% of US fossil fuel use is by the food production industry; this is more than any other sector of the economy.

Obesity adds US$147 billion to US health care costs.


First lady Michelle Obama’s organic garden has so far produced 255lb of organic produce.

Less than 1% of American crop land is farmed organically.

Sustainable food is priced more expensively than organic food and harder to find.

As LEDCs grow richer demand for meat and poultry to set to grow by 25% by 2015.

Downside of Cheap

Americans currently spend less than 10% of their income on food; it was 18% in 1966.

The key to cheap American food is corn; in 1970s production of corn was 4 billion bushels; today it is over 12 billion bushels.

Because of fertiliser run off into the gulf of Mexico there is a ‘dead zone’ of over 6,000 square miles, that has no oxygen and therefore no sealife. The fishing industry uses 212,000 metric tonnes of seafood through this deadzone each year. There are 400 similar zone around the world.

70% of antibiotic drugs in America are used on animals, most are being used as a proventative measure.

Worldwide the organic food business is worth US$46 billion, demand even in a global recession outstrips supply.

To produce the current amount of food using organic methods may be possible but would require alot more labour

Americans throw out 14% of food that they buy.

Cost is the biggest barrier to organic produce, the annual cost of conventional food is $825, compared to organic food of $1,722.

In addition all calories are not equal, $1 can buy:

  • 1,200 calories of potato chips.
  • 875 calories of soda.
  • 250 calories of vegetables.
  • 170 calories of fresh fruit.