When food writers look at a meal in terms of its “true costs” to the consumer, taxpayer, and environment, here’s what happens.
Mark Bittman this week tackles cheeseburgers as “simply a symbol of a food system gone awry” and calculates the CO2 costs and the public health costs of these calorie bombs at about $4 billion! Divided by the number of burgers consumed in the U.S. annually, that’s a total of $0.48 per burger. Whoa. But, its not all doom and gloom. Bittman explains his reasoning behind the work:
. . . cheeseburgers are the coal of the food world, with externalities in spades; in fact it’s unlikely that producers of cheeseburgers bear the full cost of any aspect of making them. If we acknowledge how much burgers really cost us we might either consume fewer, or force producers to pick up more of the charges or — ideally — both.”
Mark Shapiro echoed Bittman’s exploration of externalities this week in an analysis of the true costs of climate change. Echoing the logic of the recent Risky Business: The True Costs of Climate Change report, Shapiro names figures like $17.3 billion spent on crop insurance subsidies in the drought year of 2012, $14 billion spent on health costs of climate-related events from 2000-2009, and $2.15 trillion of environmental costs annually done by the Earth’s 3,000 largest companies as estimated by the U.N. Environment Program. His argument is that though we currently don’t have a carbon tax, we are certainly shelling out taxpayer dollars to mitigate the effects of a changing climate.
For more on true external costs of foods, see the Lexicon of Sustainability’s video on True Cost Accounting. It can seem a little cold to put things only in terms of money, but it does serve to bring home the point that our decisions about how we manage our natural (and unnatural) resources have a profound effect on our world. Let’s hope that by studying things in “true costs” way we can learn how to be more efficient with what we have.