When it comes to food, the US is currently paying too little for too much. This has convinced us that we couldn’t possibly have healthy food for the same price — but perhaps we can.
No matter where you live, the word ‘organic’ is associated with goodness and sustainability. And even for those who don’t buy into the social or presumed better nutritional quality, organic usually means pesticide-free. And removing pesticides from our plates is desirable. However, many are quick to point out, not everyone in the US could afford to eat entirely organic. Simply put, by 2030–20 million more American’s will need to be fed and according to current organic outputs, there wouldn’t be enough organic produce to go around. Organic food needs space. It’s a question of math, they argue. No matter what you do, one plus one can’t equal three. But I would argue, by looking at the problem more holistically, we might be able to address the issue more effectively. And in principle, everyone could eat pesticide-free.
In the US, certain fruits and vegetables are regularly treated with the kind of pesticides, which some experts believe are harmful once ingested. For example, studies show a strong connection between pesticides and lowered fertility rates. But even for those who argue that one study is not enough, it’s hard to ignore the evidence that pesticides can contaminate soil, water, and vegetation, kill beneficial insects and be toxic to birds and fish. Whether we eat the pesticide sprayed strawberries or not, the excess product is making its way into our immediate ecosystem.
The FDA’s current stance on pesticide use can best be described as one of tolerance. The US needs a certain quota of food to be produced per year to supply the demand and provide nutrition, but also to keep food prices down — and prevent unrest. If pesticides were banned tomorrow (or even in 10 years) farm corporations would not be able to produce the current high-intensive yield needed to meet our calorie demands. From cattle to cucumbers, diseases suppressed for many years by strong chemicals would raise their ugly heads once more. This would not lead to a famine in the US, but it would lead to less food. And I don’t mean, not enough food either, just not the level of excess we’ve built our economy around. And this is something we are simply not prepared for.
Food has never been so cheap or so abundant
Food prices in America, i.e. how much it costs to provide a person with their 2300 or so calories per day have never been so low. In fact, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ‘average’ family in 1961 spent almost 20% of the household budget on food alone. Today, that number is closer to 5%. What’s more, we now buy and waste far more food than ever before. The average American also now consumes around 3,600 calories per day compared to 2,800 back in 1961. Three times as much vegetable oil per day, around 650 kcal worth makes its way into our mouths. And 16% of everything we buy ends up in the kitchen trash. We buy more, we eat more and we waste more food — and yet still we allot less of our household budget to food.
I think you see where I’m going with this, there’s a disconnect between supply and demand and price and product. Regardless of the fact that we a) don’t need all those calories and b) throw all that stuff out, we still buy it — we still drive the demand the FDA sees. Also, how can we get so many more calories for so much less money?
Let’s look at calories first. Vegetable oil (canola oil) is the cheapest source of calories in the world. A person could get their 2300 kcal in canola oil for just 70c a day. By comparison, it would cost you $35 to get the same number of calories out of a meal comprised of fresh (either organic or not) turkey, broccoli and bell peppers. I’m quite sure none of us know anyone who lives on canola oil alone, but most people are aware that it’s in ‘everything’.
Mr. Average American gets 20% of his daily calories from canola oil. Likewise, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), another cheap product provides 8% of total energy intake to his neighbor, Jane Average. Basically, 28% of their calories today came from these two sources alone. Add to that another 20% in wheat flour, which cost the same per calorie as canola oil (according to the USDA) and we start to see why our nation’s food outgoings are so cheap for so many calories. Over half of our (ideal amount) 2300 calories per day fall under the 70c per day costing model.
And what about that 16% thrown away food? Well, unfortunately for our bank balances, the food we waste the most, doesn’t fall under the 70c per day heading. The food we throw out is the expensive stuff, the turkey, broccoli and bell peppers. We complain about how much food costs and then we throw it out — making it twice as expensive. Surely this means we’d be able to quite comfortably buy half as much for the same price too.
We all know about home food waste so I won’t go into it, but before we get the chance to throw out our good food, the producer throws away a good amount of it too. Surprisingly although it is expensive stuff, the demand is just not there. The term used, ‘upstream waste’ has its roots in the demand for blemish-free produce. We want healthy, organic food — but only if it looks really, really good. This is something canola oil doesn’t have to worry about. But it is also driven by presumed demand. Supermarkets ‘kickback’ food when they don’t think it’s wanted. So if bell pepper sales are slowing, they stop buying a farmer’s bell peppers. This makes a sense commercially. But as bell peppers are perishable and take time and resources to grow, this puts the farmer in a tight position. Now they need to grow more to have a chance of making back their loss. And this leads to further waste. Farmers also try to minimize this damage by reducing transport and picking costs. So, around 25% of produce per farm is left in the field because farmers know no one will buy it.
I’m sure all these percentages are making your head hurt, but I’ve included them to prove a point. The combination of our expectation to be able, to pick and choose our food based on its appearance, to excess calories, and to throw food away without consequence makes producing the same amount of food on a low-intensity model impossible.
Feeding our growing American family
We eat 56% more calories than we need and waste another 50% (physical weight) or more. These are important figures to consider when trying to work out how the US can ‘go organic’. In addition, when we hear figures like “20 million more people by 2030,” we panic! Where are we going to put them all and what will they eat? But in fact, US population has been growing by just 0.7 percent in previous years, the smallest growth since records began. And what’s more, our top-heavy older population won’t be around forever.
If we take all these factors into account in our argument for a healthier food future, we see one thing — the prospect of trying to meet this goal is actually not that scary. This time the math does add up — a contained population increase alongside lower calorie needs and less waste could mean more pesticide-free farming. Alongside this, trends in animal-free farming mean more and more land could be given over to producing human food instead of animal food (100 calories of food produces 3 calories of beef).
However, despite all these positive possibilities, there is still one obstacle that sits between us and our health-weight and pesticide-free future — where we live. In dense metropolitan areas, Americans tend to eat better than their rural neighbors. If you can go to the store on the way home from work, you can buy fresh food. If your nearest Kroger is 20 miles away, you go once a week and buy processed-food. This second example is the one, which contains foods high in canola oil, HFCS, and wheat flour. And while this food continues to sell, the USDA will continue to subsidize it as a basic American need.
So much food, so far away.
Mr. Average American lives 7 miles away from his nearest grocery store (compared to between 325 and 650 meters in France). Neighborhood-level employment, population density, and mix use neighborhoods correlate with grocery store closeness. Essentially, if you live in a community rather than the ‘burbs, you’ll have a better chance of eating well. The good news is America is changing. Nearly 80% of the US now lives in urban areas and these are more associated with mixed-use neighborhoods and access to fresh food. As a nation we are becoming much less dependent on the car to get around. In 1981, a car was at the top of every 16-year-olds wish list; currently it’s a smartphone.
Taken altogether, these factors show us an America on the change — one that could feed all its population well by 2030. If the US actively works to address every element of the problem, instead of cherry picking its causes, our health and our ecosystem could be improved.