Americans frequently complain about the cost of food, but are we really paying the true cost for the production of the food we eat?
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Kiwi exporters have battled tariffs as they try to find their way in the market. Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

According to an article published by Emma Bryce in Anthropocene Magazine, we are not. Bryce condensed a detailed and complex study by German researchers that indicated our food costs do not consider the external climate costs that factor into our food production. These costs vary by food type, ranking meat based products the highest contributor to negative environmental emissions, followed by dairy and then plant based foods.

According to Bryce, “The key trend the researchers noticed was the largest differences in emissions were driven by the type of food, rather than the farming method. That suggests that choosing what we eat might ultimately have more influence on environmental health, than the way our food is farmed.” The researchers, however, did make distinctions between conventional and organic farming methods, citing organic techniques less harmful because they forbid the use of nitrogen fertilizers primarily.

Citing the three categories by the German researchers, meat products (poultry, ruminants, and pork) would be 150% more expensive than they are currently priced taking into account their environmental impact, which we all pay for one way or another. These indirect costs would include: land use, fertilizers, methane emissions, heating and transport. The study did not specify, but it is factual in America, that the cost of eliminating manure and the subsequent run off from fields into our water ways, and the subsequent pollution would be an added cost in the United States.

The cost of dairy products, which would include milk, the many cheeses we eat and butter would increase 91% according to the German research study. Secondary animal products like milk and eggs cause lower emissions than meat, but consider this investment. The mass of eggs and milk that a farm animal produces during it’s life is significantly higher than it’s own body weight on the day of slaughter. So, these secondary products render less impact most of the animal’s life, but upon slaughter of the meat, the impact becomes greater, according to the German researchers. Again, in America, this research may be questioned, as maintaining cows for milk and the production of it’s secondary products, still calls into question the environmental devastation created by conventional, now considered commercial (CAFO) farming. As mentioned many times before, the environmental impacts of big commercial farming is unquestioningly damaging to soils, air and water quality.

Finally, organically produced, plant based foods estimated increase would be 6%. This is because these foods are organically grown, do not use commercial nitrogen fertilizers, and usually utilize smaller parcels of land for crops.

There are ethical questions to having every American pay for the true costs of our food. One, we struggle now with a hungry America, but frankly, that is more about the economic imbalance currently in the country, and could easily be remedied by good leadership. Secondly, if every American paid something for these costs to our planet, would we make better food choices? Would plant based diets increase, eradicating some of the major diseases killing off many Americans? And finally, would paying for the deleterious and negligent costs of current farming to our lands make us all more accountable to our planet, finally welcoming in the kind of organic farming that every American could afford and enjoy.

Deborah J. Comstock is an Adrian farm owner and board member, Lenawee Indivisible. She can be reached at

The giant Holstein cow with spots arranged as a map of the world is designed to celebrate the farmer-owned cooperative’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

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