Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

The True Cost of Food and How Regenerative Agriculture Can Help

by CRARS staff member Sheryl Karas MA

golden wheat in the field

Because converting to regenerative agriculture entails patience and investment in new choices as a 2-3 year start-up cost, and can, in some cases, be more labor intensive, a concern that often comes up is how to make the food we eat affordable AND climate-smart. Farmers who use conventional approaches say we need the methods they use to adequately feed the world and keep it affordable. And that’s a great argument because modern farming is all about efficiency in producing and shipping the greatest quantity of food at the lowest cost . . . if the price we paid at the market actually reflected the true cost of production.

According to a report by the Rockefeller Foundation(opens in new window) released in July 2021, the true cost of food is nearly $3.2 trillion a year—triple what Americans actually spend on food at the current time. That’s because of externalized costs that we pay for as a society instead of as consumers. Examples include impacts on the environment and climate, healthcare costs due to diet-related diseases and pollution, underpaid food and farm workers, and the social impacts all of that creates.

Healthcare Impacts

Dr. Roy Steiner, Senior Vice President for the Food Initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation says that health is the largest part of this burden. The system as a whole incentivizes cheap, highly processed food and low paid labor instead of healthy food and wages people can use to afford it. And that has led to high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in the United States and other places that have adopted a similar diet and lifestyle. The U.S. government actually spends almost $1.15 trillion per year to address diet-related diseases, as well as food insecurity and the impact of pollution on health.

These factors have a particularly harsh impact on communities of color who represent the majority of low wage workers employed in the food system and who, ironically, have the least access to healthy food themselves. In addition to long hours in physically challenging working conditions they are exposed to chemical fertilizers and pesticides that have harmful effects or are more likely to live downstream from agricultural run-off. Additionally, about 30 million Americans live in food deserts without easy access to supermarkets and grocery stores that sell fresh produce they can afford. This is surprisingly prevalent in the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley that produces the majority of the nation’s food. This is because the workers are paid poorly and most of the land is used for single commodity farming with almost all the product shipped out of the area. In Butte County, for example, 93% of the food produced here (nuts, olives, and rice for the most part) is not used to feed the local population. According to the Butte County Community Health Improvement Plan, 20% of the people in this county live in food deserts despite being surrounded by agricultural land.

Environmental Impacts

The second highest cost comes from impacts from environmental pollution, reduced biodiversity, and the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. This is specifically due to the impacts of modern farming and, according to the Rockefeller report, these costs to the environment amount to about $805 billion per year.

Water Pollution

The EPA reports (PDF) that in the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, agricultural run-off was the biggest source of contamination in surveyed rivers and lakes, the second largest source of damage to wetlands, and a major contributor to contamination in surveyed estuaries and ground water. Fertilizer and manure run-off create algae blooms that kill fish, and add chemicals that poison drinking water, and ruin environments for recreational activities.

Air Pollution

Agriculture is also a major contributor to air pollution and is the largest environmental risk factor for mortality worldwide, including in the United States. A recent study from 2021(opens in new window) shows that U.S. agricultural production results in 17,900 annual air quality–related deaths each year, mostly from fine particulate matter and other emissions released by tillage, field burning, livestock production, fertilizer and pesticide applications, and use of machinery. 

Climate Change

The EPA estimates(opens in new window) that in 2020 agriculture accounted for 11% of the greenhouse gases emitted in the United States, making it the 4th largest contributor. This number is likely low, however, because it does not include the impact of processing, packaging, and shipping agricultural products around the globe or land use changes (clearing forests for farming and ranching, for example) that reduce carbon storage and release more carbon into the atmosphere. The UN states the impact is closer to 30%(opens in new window). What is included in the EPA report shows that agricultural soil management practices that depend on tillage and excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers, manure management, and conventional livestock management produce the greatest CH4 and N2O emissions.

Biodiversity Loss

 In February 2021, the UN Environmental Programme reported(opens in new window) that the global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss worldwide and that this is primarily related to the choices we make in producing the food we eat.  According to a recent study they helped sponsor, global species extinction is now higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years, and agriculture alone is the identified threat 86% of the species at risk of extinction today. The report specifically pointed to the paradigm of producing cheap food at any cost as the construct that needs to be interrupted as it has created a circular supply and demand pattern that intensifies the impulse to clear forests and produce food at ever increasing scale and intensity. Demand shapes supply but cheaper food and rising income (plus the impact of global marketing) increases the demand for the enticing products being marketed. It’s not just about feeding people to stave off starvation; it’s changing patterns in what people consume—a limited set of commodity crops and highly processed food products of lower nutritional quality. Cheaper calories from these staple commodity crops are more abundant, but more nutritious crops and those grown with much more consciousness about soil health and other environmental impacts have become more expensive and less available. It also drives how much we eat (too much for good health), and how much we waste with overwhelming impacts on every aspect of life. Furthermore, loss of biodiversity and soil fertility due to these patterns makes it harder to produce food using the same amount of inputs and increases the perceived need to intensify agriculture even more.

The Role Regenerative Agriculture Can Play

While regenerative farming alone doesn’t have all the answers, it certainly is in an excellent position to address the environmental and possibly even the nutritional and health impacts of the current food system. This system of agriculture:

  • Builds soil, soil fertility and health.
  • Increases water percolation and retention in the soil so less irrigation is needed.
  • Reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides or eliminates them completely.
  • Reduces water run-off and keeps it cleaner and safer.
  • Increases biodiversity and ecosystem health and resiliency.
  • May create more nutrient-dense food and food that has fewer adverse effects on people’s health.
  • Cleanses the atmosphere of excess globally-warming CO2 by sequestering it in the soil.
  • Helps improve and maintain a healthy environment for farmworkers and community members who live in the vicinity.
  • Provides better crop diversity for human health and food security
  • Improves farm resiliency to climate change and unusual weather events.
  • Creates savings from reduced use of chemicals, including fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and antibiotics, can increase producer profitability

The practices used are well-known—even traditional in many cases— and include the use of 

  • Cover crops
  • Crop rotation
  • No-till or reduced tillage
  • Compost and mulch (green manure)
  • Management intensive, adaptive, or holistic grazing
  • Diversified faming that integrates livestock and crops
  • Agroforestry & silvopasture (trees)
  • Riparian buffers and wind breaks

Better yet, these practices are already being implemented to help feed communities, restore the soil, and combat climate change in many places all over the world. If the true cost of food was an inherent part of individual, corporate, and government decision and policy making, implementing these practices at scale could be incentivized and put to work to solve global food challenges and climate, food and water insecurity. Lacking that, they could and should be put into practice to bolster local food economies and sustainability. Increasing efforts to support urban edge and intra-urban food production using climate-resilient practices would counter worries about food chain shortages, reduce food, and water insecurity on a community or regional basis, and interrupt our dependence on overly polluting corporate scale farming as the primary mode of production.

Learn more about Regenerative Agriculture at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems(opens in new window) at Chico State.