The Hidden Cost Of Cheap Food

Food is the cheapest it has ever been in relative terms. Whereas in the 1950s up to a third of household income was spent on food, now that figure is closer to just 10%.

With promotions and “roll back” prices, food continues to get ever cheaper and even the most expensive and most exotic food stuffs which our grandparents could only dream of are now within the grasp of almost anyone.

Green beans flown in from Kenya? No problem. Strawberries at Christmas? Easy. Bananas from Costa Rica? How many would you like?

The supermarkets would have you believe that this is all good news. That the competition between them, and their desire to win the supermarket wars, is good for consumers. Better quality food, in more reliable quantities at prices that anyone can afford. It’s a nice idea, but as you may have guessed there is another side to this equation.

Whilst food may be “cheaper” than ever before, there are additional costs behind the scenes which may make you change your views about supermarkets and big food manufacturers when you discover them.

Factory Farming

One of the buzz words surrounding supermarkets is “economies of scale” which quite simply means finding ways to do things bigger and bigger, and reaping discounts as a result. Whether that’s a buyer agreeing to a huge order to secure a discount or a farmer keeping thousands of animals instead of hundreds, money can be saved.

Factory farming is really a great description. Animals and plants are “grown” in a factory-like environment giving them only the bare minimum of what they need.

In terms of animals, drugs such as growth hormones and antibiotics may be given to encourage the animals to grow larger and mature faster than a normal animal. Specialists deliberately breed varieties that produce more “yield” such as chickens with more breast meat which can get so large, so quickly, that they can struggle to walk.

Often animals are kept in minuscule cages, with artificial light to keep them eating and growing as quickly as possible. The first time some animals may see real daylight may be on their way to the slaughter house.

I don’t know about you, but I want to think of my steak as having had a long, healthy happy life in a field, surrounded by succulent grass and bathed in sunshine rather than trapped in a dingy barn with barely room to turn around.

Pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers are used to get the biggest and best plant-based produce possible. Genetically modified varieties have been bred to speed up the process even more. Of course some of these chemicals will either leach into water sources or will still be present on your food when you buy it.

The levels of intensity in factory farming mean that every inch of land is utilized often leading to essential wildlife habitats being destroyed. Hedgerows are torn up. Woodland is felled.

But that’s the cost of cheap food. Producers do whatever it takes to get more and more out of their “crops” – either animals and plants. Sure, they can produce more and therefore sell it cheaper, but the impact on the animals, the risks of GM crops and the pollution of the ecosystem are all potential side effects of factory farming like this.

Chemical Alternatives

Even with all the factory farming, there are ways to reduce food costs even more. Raw materials can still be seen as too expensive, or may not have the shelf life that a supermarket wants. So chemical alternatives can be used.

The cheapest foods of all – typically the premade ready meals just waiting to be warmed up at home – may consist of a cocktail of chemicals to make cheap, poir quality ingredients taste just right.

Chemicals are cheap and freely available while natural products are expensive and in a far more limited supply. If you could make a lasagne out of real, prime cuts of meat or make it from leftovers and just color it and flavour it so it looks and tastes as good as the “real thing” – and you could massively increase your profits as a result, don’t you think the food manufacturers will do this?

After all, we live in a “dog eat dog” world, with all the big companies struggling for profits and many answering to the demands of rich shareholders. They *have* to turn a profit, no matter what it takes. And using chemicals is an easy way to do this.


The concept of geoarbitrage is simply that some things are cheaper in some parts of the world than others. For example labour may be cheaper in third world countries than at home. Food may be bought cheaper. After all, if all you need to live on is a few dollars a day, you can sell your produce far cheaper than someone in the developed world.

Because of this, much food is brought in from overseas. Some is even grown in one country, shipped to another for processing and then shipping to a third for sale. But it’s not just necessarily that food is cheaper overseas, but also that there may be fewer environmental controls in place. Food can be produced in intensive ways which simply wouldn’t be allowed even in our factory farming culture.

And of course environmental checks may also not be as strict as in the developed world. Rainforest is felled to produce cheap beef or palm oil plantations. Mangroves are destroyed to create fish farms and so on.

But is isn’t just that food can often be produced cheaper overseas. Different climates and seasons mean that food that used to only be available for a small season each year can now be available year round if it is shipped into the country from abroad.

Of course, the more this food is shipped around the world, the larger the carbon footprint.

So yes, the food in our shops is now cheaper than ever before. But this is an illusion. Many other costs exist but are hidden from view. The cost of environmental destruction, the millions of dollars of your tax money spent on removing agricultural runoff from the water systems, the chemicals we consume every day, the conditions that animals are now being kept in and the unknown risks of GM crops are all hidden costs that must be faced sooner or later.

Beware of cheap food. It’s not always what it seems.

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4 thoughts on “The Hidden Cost Of Cheap Food

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  3. I've spent a decade trying to convince my family and friends of this very issue. I've gotten on my soapbox probably 100 times. "Every dollar is a vote! If you want products that are good for you and the environment you have to buy only those products to show big food that these are the products we as consumers want!"…I've been largely ignored. It's great to see the "green" movement getting around and letting folks know about these issues…it's just a shame that people are so set in their ways that they don't care.

    In the words of my father "I really don't see a difference between these organic steaks and the steak your mom gets at the Acme. I'd rather be able to eat steak for 5 bucks a pound than 30 bucks a pound. I don't really care about the cow it came from."

    Hopefully he'll care when he's got a tumor the size of grapefruit protruding from his abdomen from all the growth hormones he's ingested!

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