What is true cost and how does it relate to sustainable sourcing of food?
When you purchase a car knowing the true cost of ownership is often a better measure of value than the on-sticker purchase price. Making a purchase is just the beginning. Owning a car includes many factors. Insurance, fuel consumption, repairs and upkeep all have costs you will need to pay. Sometimes these additional costs make the initial low-price look like less good of a deal once all the costs are considered and understood. More than just price needs to be considered. Sourcing food is no different.
There are many costs and factors that go into producing the food we eat each day. Imports, tariffs, working wages, shipping, use of pesticides, preservatives, chemicals and don’t forget about the quality of the actual product once you get it. Shelf-life, stability, lead-time, weather patterns in Central America, fake honey. It can be dizzying. Check out this clip-on true cost and sustainable sourcing from The Lexicon of Sustainability.
The Sugar Cane Example
Conventional cane sugar won’t break the budget but is harvested by burning cane fields to remove the outer leaves of the cane stalk. Burning fields depletes soil nutrients, requires enormous amounts of water to wash cane stalks before processing, and presents a public health hazard to farm workers and surrounding communities due to air pollution. Conventional sugar cane also uses a high number of inputs like pesticides and fertilizers, harming pollinators and polluting waterways.
Organic cane sugar is more expensive, and you don’t necessarily need certified organic sugar. However, it comes from a carbon neutral project that harvests mechanically with no burning. This project has worked for years to build up soil fertility, improve biodiversity and preserve groundwater quality and volume buy introducing sound farming techniques. They even generate enough surplus renewable energy to power a city of 500,000 people. They also pay a living wage and have a long list of worker benefits like health insurance, training and profit sharing.
Which sugar source should you choose? Are the big picture benefits to workers, the environment and public health enough to justify the higher price of organic sugar when you have your own bottom line to uphold?
The Fast Food Example
Think of a hamburger on the dollar menu at your local fast-food chain. How can $1 cover the cost of raising the cow for the meat, growing and harvesting the lettuce, manufacturing the bun, shipping all the ingredients to the location and paying for an employee to put it together for you at the drive thru window? The consumer isn’t paying for the true cost of that hamburger with their dollars. So, who is paying?
If we’re serious about combatting issues like responsibly feeding an increasing population, we need to take these costs into account. Continuing down a road where a foods “cheapness” is its most important factor will only increase the burden on the environment and public health.
Consumers still make food decisions primarily on taste and price. There is however a growing interest in learning where food comes from and how it’s produced. Consumers have noticed the higher quality and the price differences and ask, “why are sustainable options more expensive?” They cost more because they more accurately reflect the true costs of production. With that should come the question – why is the rest so cheap?
So, What’s it All Mean?
This brings us back to the initial sugar example. The question is not organic vs. conventional sugar. Instead, it’s about which ingredient has the lowest TRUE cost? Considering the cost of soil degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution from runoff, you see that while conventional cane sugar appear to be cheaper, that price doesn’t cover the true cost. They are more costly to people, health and the environment than the organic cane sugar.
By considering true costs when making purchasing decisions, consumers and food sellers can be agents of change. Just by looking into the sourcing story behind your ingredients, you can make a judgment as to whether they’re sustainable and whether you’re willing to pay for that sustainability.
The future of sustainable food production has the potential to improve food quality and the environment. You can make a difference by considering true cost, by looking for sustainable ingredients, and by supporting chefs, restaurants and caterers whose practices reflect this philosophy.