Report Estimates the True Cost of Food in the US

By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

The Rockefeller Foundation recently published a report
on the true cost of food in the US
. This report is an attempt to measure
the costs to our health, environment, and society of the current food
production system. The report points out that in 2019, American consumers spent
an estimated $1.1 trillion on food. Yes, that is trillion with 9 zeroes after
the 1! That’s what we pay for labor, food production,  processing, and transportation. Despite the
enormity of this number, the report’s authors estimate that the true cost of
food is at least three times higher – $3.2 billion per year.

The report provides the following estimates of “hidden”
costs of the US food system:

  • Human health $1.1 trillion per year – this
    includes direct health care costs and the cost of lost productivity due to
    diet-related diseases such as obesity, heart disease, cancer diabetes; the cost
    of workplace injuries and the effects of pollution due to food production on
    health
  • Environment $350 billion per year – includes
    greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and soil erosion related to food
    production
  • Biodiversity loss $455 billion per year –
    includes land use and pollution’s effect on biodiversity
  • Livelihood $100 billion per year – includes the societal
    costs of child labor, unlivable wages, lack of benefits, and the cost of
    occupational safety and health
  • Economy $21 billion per year – includes
    agricultural subsidies that are not accounted for in food prices

These costs are disproportionately borne by communities of
color, as the report details.

A limitation of this report is that it did not assign a
monetary value to animal suffering. The authors call for additional study of
the true cost of animal food production in the US.

You may be wondering how the information in this report
might be used. Possibilities include using this information to promote change
in terms of fair wages, safer conditions for workers, subsidies and incentives
for farmers and manufacturers, environmental regulations, and other
food-related decisions that impact our health, the health of others, and the
planet. Our food choices have costs and it is important to be aware of these
and to work for systemic change.