Author Raj Patel shows food has hidden costs

If all the costs were considered, a hamburger would cost about $200.


CORRECTION: This story contains an erroneous cost comparison, pegging the cost of a Big Mac at $1, about $2.50 less than the actual cost of the sandwich. A McDouble, however, typically costs $1. We regret the error.

WALLA WALLA -- A McDonald's Big Mac costs a hungry customer $1. Raj Patel, however, argues that a $1 hamburger should cost at least $200 if we valued the burger at its true cost.

Patel, an award-winning writer and activist, spoke to Whitman students and community members last night about why things -- like burgers -- cost what they do. A couple of decades ago, researchers in India looked at the hidden costs involved to produce beef patties. There was concern that the beef in American hamburgers originated from pastures that used to be rainforest.

Their study was to find the environmental footprint -- or "hoof print," Patel quipped -- of such a cow.

"They figured out that when you chop down the forest, there's a dollar value that you can ascribe to the trees that were chopped down," Patel said. "But it's not just the trees that go, it's also the wildlife that is in there, so we can ascribe a dollar value to that."

With the wildlife goes the genetic diversity of the forest, which has another dollar value. The genetic diversity, in turn, limits the ability of the forest to sequester carbon and to cycle water and nutrients, which all equals further costs.

Once these costs are all added up, the beef patty is valued at about $200.

This doesn't include the tomato on the burger.

"One of the reasons that hamburgers are so cheap is because, uniformly throughout the food system, workers are treated very badly, (even) in the U.S.," Patel said.

Workers who grow and harvest tomatoes in Southern Florida live in conditions of "modern slavery," a term he said was not used as a hyperbole.

"There are people, shackled to the back of trucks and forced by threat of weapons to work in fields, who are indentured in various ways," he said.

These workers return home every day covered in pesticides used to produce "perfect tomatoes." Rather than pay $5 for a shower with the company hose, workers rinse their hands with bleach.

"That's why a dollar burger only costs a dollar, because the workers, all the way along the production chamber, particularly in the fields, are paid a pittance," Patel said.

"It's not just the hidden cost of labor and the environment that features in our dollar burger, (but) there are, of course, costs that will be born in the future."

Patel listed the future costs of climate change, caused by using fossil fuels to produce foods today, and the rising costs of healthcare due to poor diet.

"Already, one in five of our health-care dollars is spent taking care of someone with diabetes, and that figure is set to go up in the future," he said. "One in three kids born today will develop Type 2 diabetes. One in two children of color today will develop Type 2 diabetes."

Patel estimated the cost of treating diabetes alone would run into the billions of dollars.

"We've been 'misvaluing' resources for centuries, in fact since the dawn of capitalism. We've run up a huge tab as a result," Patel said. "Rich countries have been consuming their way through the resources of poor countries for decades."

Patel's colleagues at the University of California Berkeley calculated the debt that wealthy countries have amassed from 1960 to 2000, adding up all measurable costs: of climate change, the hole in the ozone layer, the cutting down of mangrove forests for shrimp farming, the draining of water tables.

A conservative estimate of this debt, Patel said, is over $5 trillion, a debt that wealthy countries will never have to pay but has disproportionately affected the poor.

Patel, however, doesn't throw his hands up in despair. Instead, he remains hopeful that social movements will slowly correct the imbalance of the world's food system.

"The food movement in the U.S. is a source of hope. Even 10 years ago, there wasn't a food movement to speak of," he said. "It was a few Back-to-the-Landers, a few organic farmers here, a few hippie restaurants over there."

Patel credits the rise of the food justice movement to people, especially young people, who want "to do something concrete and good.

"As food prices are set to go up this year, as the number of people in the U.S. is also set to rise, there's crisis ahead but there's a great deal of hope," Patel ended his lecture. "I believe in the vision of change."

Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and, most recently, The Value of Nothing, a New York Times best seller.

AUDIO - Listen to Raj Patel describe what propelled him to become an activist for social equality.


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