Some Thoughts on Cost (The Cost of Going Green, Part 3)

This post is the third in the series, The Cost of Going Green.  
Previous posts include:
How we eat determines how the earth is used. -- Wendell Berry 

In many cases, going green is totally compatible with being frugal.  Our consumerist culture has gotten us into a lot of trouble with chemicals and climate, and you can take a large step in a greener direction simply by buying less.

But sometimes being green does cost more money.  For example, organic and natural food usually cost more money than conventional food.  And it can be tough to pay more for the organic milk, when you know exactly how much the conventional milk costs, because it's right there next to the organic milk on the shelf.  And since we have to buy food over and over again, we face this decision -- Should I pay more for the organic apple, the hormone-free milk, the grass-fed beef, the free-range eggs? -- over and over again.

I pay $4 or more for a dozen eggs.  And we eat a lot of eggs at my house.  $4/dozen sounds like so much when I could buy eggs for $1.49/dozen (or less).  But think about this.  I can eat a very filling and delicious brunch (which will last me most of the day until dinner) of 3 eggs and whole wheat toast with more than 20 g of protein total for less than a dollar.  That's pretty amazing.

Eggs from our CSA
The truth is, when you take a long-term or international view of things, it's clear that our food today is cheap. Very cheap. Maybe too cheap. For your consideration, here are 10 quotes about food, health and cost by Michael Pollan (plus a couple of bonus quotes from the Six-fingered Man and an Italian grandmother).

10 quotes about food, health and cost

Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any people in history. --Michael Pollan, "The Food Movement, Rising"

Spending on health care has risen from 5 percent of national income in 1960 to 16 percent today, putting a significant drag on the economy. . . It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent. --Michael Pollan, "Farmer-in-Chief"

Cheap food is going to be popular as long as the social and environmental costs of that food are charged to the future. There’s lots of money to be made selling fast food and then treating the diseases that fast food causes. One of the leading products of the American food industry has become patients for the American health care industry. --Michael Pollan, "Big Food vs. Big Insurance"

Since 1980, American farmers have produced an average of 600 more calories per person per day, the price of food has fallen, portion sizes have ballooned, and predictably, we’re eating a whole lot more, at least 300 more calories a day than we consumed in 1985 . . . A diet based on quantity rather than quality has ushered a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished. --Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat. --Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma
[A] quarter century of farm policies [has been] designed to encourage the overproduction of this crop [corn] and hardly any other.  Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills. . . guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest. --Michael Pollan,  The Omnivore's Dilemma

[T]he 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. --Michael Pollan, "Farmer-in-Chief"

[C]heap industrial food is cheap only because the real costs of producing it are not reflected in the price at the checkout. Rather, those costs are charged to the environment, in the form of soil depletion and pollution (industrial agriculture is now our biggest polluter); to the public purse, in the form of subsidies to conventional commodity farmers; to the public health, in the form of an epidemic of diabetes and obesity that is expected to cost the economy more than $100 billion per year; and to the welfare of the farm- and food-factory workers, not to mention the well-being of the animals we eat. --Michael Pollan, "Mass Natural"

Beginning in the late 1980s, a series of food safety scandals opened people’s eyes to the way their food was being produced, each one drawing the curtain back a little further on a food system that had changed beyond recognition. When BSE, or mad cow disease, surfaced in England in 1986, Americans learned that cattle, which are herbivores, were routinely being fed the flesh of other cattle; the practice helped keep meat cheap but at the risk of a hideous brain-wasting disease.  The 1993 deaths of four children in Washington State who had eaten hamburgers from Jack in the Box were traced to meat contaminated with E.coli 0157:H7, a mutant strain of the common intestinal bacteria first identified in feedlot cattle in 1982. Since then, repeated outbreaks of food-borne illness linked to new antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria (campylobacter, salmonella, MRSA) have turned a bright light on the shortsighted practice of routinely administering antibiotics to food animals, not to treat disease but simply to speed their growth and allow them to withstand the filthy and stressful conditions in which they live. --Michael Pollan, "The Food Movement, Rising"

[I]f the bar code on the typical package of pork chops summoned images of the CAFO [Confined Animal Feeding Operation] it came from, and information on the pig's diet and drug regimen, who could bring themselves to buy it? Our food system depends on consumers' not knowing much about it beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner. -- Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma

It's better to pay the grocer than the doctor. -- Italian grandmother

If you haven't got your health, then you haven't got anything.  -- The six-fingered man in The Princess Bride


The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

If you made it this far, you might want to read some of the full articles (click on the attribution links above) or The Omnivore's Dilemma yourself.  It just might change your life.

What are your thoughts on the cost of greener foods?


  1. The majority of increased health care spending is not due to people being more unhealthy, but due to the AMAZING technology available in this time and country. A heart transplant costs over a million dollars, but it is a HEART from a dead person's body saving the life of another person- amazing!!!

    Health care was really cheap when we lived in Africa, but I wouldn't have wanted to have ANY kind of serious illness there.

    While eating a healthy diet with a minimal amount of processed food is certainly wise,one must be very careful about spending extra for organic food when it may not be beneficial to your health at all. For instance, free range chickens often dig for grubs and worms, while conventional chicken farming controls the food intake of chickens....just a thought....

  2. Nice nod to Guatemala in the pic! Central America thanks you!

  3. Amanda, a percentage of health care cost increases can be attributed to the use (and overuse) of new technologies. But I think most health organizations agree that preventable chronic diseases related to the western diet are perhaps the largest factor in the cost of health care.

    From the CDC:
    More than 75% of health care costs are due to chronic conditions. . .
    Chronic diseases are the most common and costly of all health problems, but they are also the most preventable. Four common, health-damaging, but modifiable behaviors—tobacco use, insufficient physical activity, poor eating habits, and excessive alcohol use—are responsible for much of the illness, disability, and premature death related to chronic diseases.

    There are also ethical and environmental issues with factory farming of chickens or cattle or other animals. For one thing, what they do with the animal WASTE is completely unregulated. Also there are side effects to giving animals antibiotics and hormones that I do not like. And I'm OK with my chickens eating grubs and worms, as nature designed them to do, rather than whatever concoction industry cooked up for them based on cheapest ingredients and quickest fattening up.

  4. *shiver* So glad I joined a CSA this year--it's been awesome!

    And the Princess Bride quote made me laugh! ;)

  5. Fantastic post! I usually pay $5 for eggs from down the street from my house - and I'm in a huge metropolitan area (phoenix!) So worth it. I know they're happy chickens.

  6. Hi Betsy,
    This is a topic that continues to interest me--the socioeconomics of food and being green in general. Great collection of quotes.

    I'm so glad to have found your blog through your recent comment at Lori's Groovy Green Livin' blog. Turns out we're writing about similar topics and concerns, and I'm always happy to find like-minded green bloggers. The Omnivore's Dilemma has been a huge influence on me, and I've mentioned it in several of my own posts (for starters, this one: I really do wish I'd read it years ago.

    Anyway, I'm happy I found your blog today and will be subscribing to it.

    Joy @ Joyfully Green

    1. Thank you, Joy! I look forward to checking out your blog.


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