Report Details Food System’s Toll on Health, Environment

July 16, 2021
The “hidden cost” of the U.S. food system, in expenses related to health, the environment and other factors, is about three times the face value of the food produced.

The “hidden cost” of the U.S. food system, in expenses related to health, the environment and other factors, is about three times the face value of the food produced, according to a new report.

The report, from the Rockefeller Foundation, calculated the so-called true costs of the current system of producing, processing and distributing food in America. Looking at impacts from health care costs, biodiversity loss and climate change, the report calculates a true cost of triple the $1.1 billion that America spends on food.

The biggest single factor was environmental problems, including greenhouse gas emissions, water depletion and soil erosion, estimated at almost $900 billion a year. One problem was a reduction in biodiversity, which makes vegetation more vulnerable to pests and disease.

Another big factor was health care. The estimate was that Americans pay more than $600 billion a year to treat conditions that are attributable to poor diet, including hypertension, diabetes and cancer.

A large part of the problem, experts say, is that today’s food system was shaped at a time when the world’s population was exploding and the biggest priorities were vitamins and overall calories. Now, vitamins aren’t a big issue, but the excess calories are manifested in a global obesity problem.

“If an organic apple is 99 cents and a sugary beverage is also 99 cents, there are layers of subsidies in that sugary beverage,” an executive with the Center for Good Food Purchasing told the Washington Post. “We need to examine not only what we’re paying, but what that price reflects, the subsidized cost and the external costs — diabetes, obesity; you can monetize the health impacts.”

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