Thursday, March 03, 2005

False Economy

A new UK study has attempted to calculate the hidden costs of British produce. It concludes that British consumers (much like American ones) pay three times for food items: first at the register, second in environmental costs, and third in subsidies to farmers.

I'd also argue that they also pay, given the nature of their medical system, for medical costs associated with food contamination and poor nutrition. And then there's the question of opportunity costs: what benefits and innovations are they missing out on by sticking with the current system?

Anyway, here's one of the study's more straightforward findings:

If all farms were organic it would save £1.1bn a year. Removing pesticides from water supplies, for example, adds £250m a year to water bills. Other costs range from pollution to losses in soil and biodiversity, and costs in human and animal health, such as BSE and antibiotic resistance. Hidden costs of £1.5bn a year could be cut to £385m.
The usual caveats apply as regards these figures; this is very speculative work. Still, hidden costs are real, and they do need to be calculated to the best of our abilities. This looks to me like a pretty good - and probably conservative - stab at assessing the costs of factory farming, which is an exceptionally fertile breeding-ground for social and economic evils.

Antibiotic resistance is an especially interesting problem. Currently, its costs come from the need to prescribe more expensive antibiotics, as well as from higher mortality rates, and longer hospital stays for survivors of "superbugs." Lost productivity, and lasting disabilities - as in the case of amputation - add up to additional costs. But the cost of antibiotic resistance is, today, negligible compared to what it could be in the future. According to this article, the true social cost of antibiotic resistance will not be known for a decade or so. As bad a bargain as factory farming is today, it could be a far worse one tomorrow.

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