Tuesday, January 19, 2010

the real cost of a hamburger

One of the most startling claims in Raj Patel's excellent new book, The Value of Nothing: Why Everything Costs So Much More Than We Think, is that the 'true' economic cost of a hamburger in the United States would be around $200. When I told my students this last week, they were flabbergasted, and, being my students, they wanted to know the basis of the calculation.

I went back to the book to find out. Raj says that it is based on a report done by the Center for Science and Environment (www.cseindia.org) in India, as quoted in the Financial Times. Unfortunately, the FT article is from 1994: and so both the article and the original report, being 15 years old, are not available on the web--yet!

Luckily, I have found Raj's own explanation in an interview with the NYC Independent Media Center (www.indypendent.org). Here it is:

'The Center for Science and Environment in India tried a few years ago to figure out the true cost of a hamburger. Assuming that it was raised on pasture that was once rainforest, the ecological services provided by that rainforest, the loss of diversity, carbon sequestration, water cycling, fuel and tropical product sources, among many other things, the cost would come to $200. The U.S. food industry has huge hidden costs, from the agricultural run-off that causes a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico to the cultural destruction wrought by the “Western” diet. There are also huge health costs associated with poor diet — in 2007, $174 billion was spent in the U.S. caring for people with diabetes — as well as the public funds that support the industrial food system.

Cheap food is “cheat food.” There are all kinds of costs that are externalized from the price we pay at the checkout. We pay those costs one way or another — but the food companies don’t. Merely having a system of free markets with accurate prices still doesn’t address the underlying issues of poverty and disenfranchisement.'

Incidentally, I have arranged for Raj Patel to deliver the 2011 David Morrison Lecture in International Development at Trent University.


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