The newly released Rockefeller Foundation report, “True Cost of Food: Measuring What Matters to Transform the U.S. Food System,” strengthens the case for substantial reform of animal agriculture in the U.S. and elsewhere. The primary purpose of the report is to demonstrate that the $1.1 trillion Americans spend on food is but a third of the actual costs of that food, as measured in healthcare costs, spending associated with biodiversity loss and the direct environmental impacts of farming and ranching. When we take those into account, the report claims, it becomes evident that the true cost of the U.S. food system is at least three times as big—$3.2 trillion per year.
Some of the report’s most powerful points highlight disparities in the broader individual, social and public cost of food across communities of color, finding that “rates of diagnosed diabetes are 1.7 times higher in Latinx Americans and 1.5 times higher in Black Americans than in White Americans. And it found air pollution exposure is 41 percent higher for Black Americans than White Americans.”
No doubt, “True Cost of Food” adds value to an urgent discussion around reforming the food system. At the same time, the report never fully comes to terms with the centrality of animals to what the authors call the overlapping crises of “climate change, diet-related disease, and inequity.” The report identified animal welfare as one of seven key unaccounted costs of the food system, but only carried five of these areas forward for full discussion, and animal welfare wasn’t one of them. The report does get it right when it points out the need for more research quantifying the substantial animal welfare costs of contemporary food production involving animals and animal products, costs that include substantial negative externalities that are not being paid for by the meat industry or by the consumer.
We have found, in our domestic and global advocacy and nutrition work, that for millions of people the suffering of animals in intensive confinement systems is a main driver of dietary shifts that are good for us, good for the planet and good for our fellow creatures. When people see that pregnant pigs are confined in “gestation crates” for months, unable to even turn around, trying to relieve stress by chewing on the bars of their crates until their mouths bleed, they can’t help but reexamine the true cost of their pork products. Both the marketplace and the public policy sector are already responding to consumer demand for healthier and more humane food choices. Giants in the food industry are diversifying their product lines and menus with plant-based offerings and a dozen states have passed laws that ban the intensive confinement systems responsible for so much animal misery. Many of these shifts are the result of our corporate and legislative campaigns. Consumer choice and political action have already been decisive in transforming food production, with clear benefits for people and animals.
We share the report’s concern about the food system’s impacts on people and communities of color, and we’ve increased our focus on extending access to healthy and environmentally friendlier food options for everyone. We’ve done so by working with food service corporations to offer affordable and healthier plant-based meals in public school systems, fast-food restaurants, university dining halls, corporate cafeterias and supermarket chains across the country. While this work does not focus exclusively on communities of color, it’s certainly the case that as consumers the individuals in these communities have gained much greater access to healthier food in their daily lives, and increasingly that food is plant-based.
It’s heartening that the urgent need for reforming the food system has increasingly entered public consciousness in recent years, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s new report adds a valuable framework for quantifying what the real costs of our dysfunctional food system are. We believe a deeper awareness of farm animal suffering will play an even stronger role in shaping dietary habits in the future. Far from being a fringe issue, it is an intersecting part of effective change in the interests of animals, people, the environment and planetary resilience. For this and other reasons we will continue our own efforts to bring animals into such discussion.
Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.
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