New Zealand is 7,500 miles from the Okanagan valley of British Columbia, Canada. So why are BC grocery stores flush with New Zealand apples when perfectly good ones are grown in the Okanagan? In 2002, BC apple exports totalled 77 million pounds, while apple imports from New Zealand and elsewhere ran to 111 million pounds. British Columbians need more apples than they produce, but wouldn’t it make sense to eat the apples their neighbors grow before bringing them in from the other side of the Pacific? What’s more, many of the Okanagan farmers who could have made up the difference have been driven out of the industry by cheap imports. With the flood of foreign apples, those who didn’t qualify for government assistance to upgrade their orchards or shift into different crops have had to tear up trees and sell their land.
Free-market enthusiasts argue that consumers deserve the lowest price, and if New Zealanders can provide better value, good for them. But what is the true cost of shipping an apple from one hemisphere to another? What are the true costs of production, processing, packaging, and transportation with the standard food delivery system as compared to a local one? A 2001 Iowa State University study showed that through the conventional food delivery system, the average apple in that state travels 1,726 miles to get to the consumer. Compared to Iowa-based regional and local systems, the conventional system used far more fuel, and released five to 17 times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
In the US as a whole, food accounts for over 20 percent of all commodity transport, resulting in 120 million tonnes of CO2 emissions every year. Every day, planes, long-haul trucks, and container ships criss-cross the globe to ensure that Western palates are properly satisfied. With the current system, green beans grown in Africa can be picked in the evening, loaded on the overnight flight to Heathrow airport, and on shelves of London greengrocers by 11:00 the next morning. But even the British government recognizes that this is problematic and wants to ensure “that aviation meets the external environmental costs for which it is responsible.” A good start would be taxing aviation fuel, which currently pays a zero rate, that leaves airline travel incredibly cheap compared to its true cost. So the UK Department of Transport commissioned a study of air travel that pegged the environmental costs every time a Boeing 757 takes off at £5,140. How long until that cost is internalized? How cheap would the New Zealand apple be then? And how many apple orchards in the Okanagan could
True Cost Burgers
American insurance companies and employer health plan administrators know that obesity costs money. The bill for the average stomach shrinking surgery is $25,000 and every year there are 10 to 12 percent more people eligible for the procedure. Meanwhile, the US Department of Health has determined it takes $120 million to treat obesity annually.
Add that to the cost of treating the thousands of Americans each year who catch E. coli poisoning from hamburgers, thanks to industry shortcuts that result in meat covered with fecal matter and pathogens. Manure doesn’t have to be on meat to cause problems. It also releases smog-forming emissions and contaminates water. In 2000, seven people died in the town of Walkerton, Canada, when farmland runoff polluted the town’s water-supply with E. coli. The subsequent crisis cost at least $64.5 million cad overall and individual households had to spend about $4,000 cad on average. Two years later, agribusiness giant Cargill dumped hog waste into Missouri’s Loutre River, contaminating a five mile stretch and killing 53,000 fish. In the UK, a 2003 report from Essex University calculated that British taxpayers spend up to £2.3 billion every year repairing the damage that industrial farming does to the environment and human health. So what would a Big Mac cost if its true production costs were included?
Canada’s Agriculture Minister was emphatic: “I want to stress from the beginning this is one cow.” But all it took was one positive test for mad cow disease in May 2003 to send Canada’s beef industry into a tailspin. Export markets were closed off immediately, and by the end of the year, industry analysts calculated the economic cost of the positive test at $3.3 billion cad. Then, just before Christmas, the industry suffered another jolt thanks to a single case of mad cow in the US. By February 2004, Agriculture Department officials in that country told Congress that the epidemic had cost $6 billion. Europeans watching all this must have scoffed at the North American figures. Their mad cow crisis has cost more than $100 billion.
Governments on both sides of the Atlantic have dutifully compensated the farmers and meat packers affected by the outbreak. And they’ve done the same after outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease and avian flu. So even if meat has never touched your lips, you pay.