The true cost of the food in our trollies

I wonder how many of us know the “true cost” of the food we put in our shopping trolleys. Seeing that most of us are not involved in the growing, processing or distribution of our food, it is nearly impossible to fully understand what is actually involved from seed to plate, and what the repercussions are. 

The truth is that most people are blissfully unaware of how their purchasing decisions determine a cost to the environment and people’s health, through how food is grown, processed and distributed. 

We grow and raise a lot of food (650 tonnes of grain and seeds, 1800 sheep, and hundreds of laying chickens, 8 hectares of organic market garden, 100kg of honey), but we are still on a steep learning curve. There are massive hidden or “ghost” costs to producing food at scale, whether plant- or animal-based.

Many people are aware of the methane greenhouse gases produced by animal farming, however we haven’t begun having robust conversations around the hidden environmental costs of other food production – horticulture and cropping – yet. Most people would have no idea of the high amounts of synthetic fertiliser, fossil fuels, chemicals, and soil carbon losses involved in conventional horticulture and cropping (eg, wheat, barley, potatoes, carrots etc).

If we cannot understand the true hidden costs of producing food at scale, then we cannot appreciate or understand the value of food produced within better, more sustainable systems either. We see this often. For example, we don’t get a dollar more for growing our grains and seeds regeneratively, and spray-free, than if we were to desiccate (the common practice of chemical spraying just before harvesting) our crops. We choose not to spray and desiccate our crops purely because we don’t want to contribute to chemicals in the food system.

In fact, when you look beyond the packaging, a staggering proportion of food consumed is overly processed, nutritionally compromised, and produced in intensive monoculture systems that depend on massive external inputs, not to mention food miles. Take soy milk, for example. If we follow its journey, there’s a high chance it was grown in the United States from genetically modified seed.

The inputs – synthetic fertilisers, chemical sprays, fossil fuels – required to grow and harvest soybeans in a mass monoculture system are high. Then, the soybeans are exported to a different state or country, where they are processed in a factory with the addition of more external inputs (eg, mineral fortification), before being packaged and shipped halfway around the world to us. 

Then there’s the loss of soil carbon, health and biodiversity involved – the issues that worry me the most, yet are widely unknown to the general population, nor talked about. The damage from intensive dairying is known and prominently discussed in New Zealand, but could imported soy milk be a bit of a case of “out of sight, out of mind” and “as long as it’s not happening in my backyard”?

What if you are lucky enough to be able to afford organic? There is a cost with that too. If you can only produce (in the case of, say, a crop such as wheat) roughly one fifth of a conventional system, then you must use five times the land to produce the same amount of flour if you want to feed the world. 

I am not endorsing conventional over organic, or dairy over soy. My point is that growing all food, and I mean every food type, on a large scale comes at a cost that is often not truly thought about or reflected at the supermarket checkout. 

I don’t have all the answers, unfortunately. However, I do believe that, overall, we need to learn about the journey behind more of what’s on our plate, be more involved with growing or raising some of our own food, and learn to place real value on food grown in agricultural systems that match our views and beliefs. 

We also need to be mindful of looking at the “big picture” of the impacts our food choices have, and not be easily blindsided by marketing claims and media or documentary sound bites. Whatever you see or hear, is only ever one small piece of the puzzle.