-Free Food . . . At A Cost

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Cage-free. GMO-free. Antibiotic-free. Hormone-free. Meat-free. Each week brings new headlines about companies making changes to how they raise livestock and promote meat, milk and eggs.

Based on recent food-shopping trends and U.S. consumer demands, it appears we are in the midst of a “-Free” Food Movement. While “free” sounds promising, it is time to take a look beyond the good intentions of the “free-from” food movement and understand that “-free” can actually mean more: more disease, more animals, more natural resource use, more food costs and even more hungry people.

As we answer the desire for “-free” food and work to continuously improve our farming practices, we must balance human, animal and environmental concerns to make nutritious food more available and accessible. Nutrition is a first line of defense against a number of diseases and public health threats. According to a 2014 Food and Agriculture Organization report, the global cost of malnutrition is $3.5 trillion per year, while the global cost of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies is $2.1 trillion per year. We have the opportunity and responsibility to improve the world’s health through food. But as we work together toward this goal, we need to also look at the real costs of “-free” food.

For years, the U.S. food system has focused on making the nation’s food safer, more available, more affordable and more sustainable. We have made tremendous progress. In recent decades, the carbon footprint to produce a gallon of milk and a pound of pork, beef and/or chicken have all dropped significantly. Because food is more affordable, Americans today are spending a smaller percentage of their annual income on food – a decrease from 17.5 percent in 1960 to 9.9 percent in 2013. The “-free food movement” threatens this progress. We say we want these things, but do we really understand the implications? Are one-dimensional decisions made by those who can afford luxury food products ignoring the real impact? Or are they driven by short-term marketing opportunities that don’t reflect true consumer demand? Either way, the ramifications are significant. “-Free” food is not free for all – for consumers, livestock or the environment.

There are financial costs. According to the USDA National Retail Report for the week ending December 30, the average advertised price for large, white USDA Grade A eggs in U.S. supermarkets was $1.08 per dozen while large, white USDA Grade A “cage-free” eggs at $3.31 a dozen cost shoppers more than three times as much. These types of one-dimensional decisions typically tilt the entire supply chain. It’s already happening in eggs. The industry has added 8 million cage-free layers in the past two years, just 4 percent of the expected need by 2025. But enough consumers aren’t interested in paying the premium price point, creating a glut of cage-free eggs. As a result, some producers have diverted premium cage-free eggs for use in food manufacturing.

Overall, Consumer Reports says that organic foods and beverages in the United States cost nearly 50 percent more than their conventional counterparts. While cost to the consumer is not the only important factor, it is reason enough to look closely at the full consequences, in addition to “-free-food” labels.

There are environmental costs. It is forecast that by 2050 – as a result of a growing population and more people entering the middle class – we will see an increase in demand for meat, milk and eggs, requiring 60 percent more animal-sourced foods globally. We’ll need to meet that demand responsibly, with a keen focus on conserving our natural resources. That becomes increasingly difficult if we deny the innovations that have helped reduce food’s environmental footprint over the years.

Look in your refrigerator. That gallon of milk takes 90 percent less land and 65 percent less water to produce than it did 70 years ago. Consider that package of grass-fed hamburger. If all U.S. cattle were only grass fed, we would produce 135 million more tons of carbon, would require 468 billion more gallons of water and 435 million more acres of land – the equivalent of another California. We cannot produce the food of tomorrow with yesterday’s practices. We will need to improve practices for all food systems, including organics which, if used for all U.S. crops in 2014 would have required farming 109 million more acres of land – equivalent to all the parkland and wild-land areas in the lower 48 states.

Finally, there are costs to the animals. The thought process is that cage-free birds are happier birds. But there is no one right system for raising animals. According to scientists, every system has its trade-offs. There is little evidence that cage-free, socialized birds have less stress than those living in cages. In fact, the real life “pecking order” can create different stresses as the cage-free chickens can actually peck each other to death. While death rates for chickens in cage systems are 3 percent, fatalities from pecking and disease, due to increased pathogen exposure, rise to 7 percent for cage-free birds, 9 percent for free-range birds and 13 percent for organically raised chickens. Sick chickens can compromise food quality and safety and can expend unnecessary resources, including feed and water.

Food production is complex. Yet, we all fundamentally want the same thing: safe, affordable food that prioritizes the health and welfare of animals and uses natural resources wisely. Well-meaning, but misplaced emphasis, on “-free” sets people, animals and the environment up to pay quite a hefty price.

Follow Jeff N. Simmons on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JeffSimmons2050

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