“The cost of steak”

Taking a quick detour from recipes to discuss (rant about?) ingredients today! When you choose ingredients for your cooking, are you bent on finding a bargain? Do you take into consideration the hidden costs of the ingredients you are happy to get at “bargain” prices (do those prices even exist any more?)?

In the August 23 issue of the LA Times, Paul Roberts (author of The End of Food) pens a sobering, important reminder to us about why beef (and pork and chicken) is so cheap compared to what it used to cost – there are numerous hidden costs: “rivers of sewage, clouds of contaminated dust and nearly a fifth of all greenhouse gases,” not to mention epidemics of E.coli.

But as the downsides of factory farming have grown too large to ignore, we’ve had to admit that our meat is cheap only because we don’t count all the costs: Taxpayers spend $4.1 billion cleaning up livestock sewage leaks and $2.5 billion treating salmonella. All told, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, CAFOs may be costing taxpayers $38 billion a year — costs that aren’t reflected in the retail price of meat.

Roberts goes on to say that indeed, sustainably farmed meat is not cheap, but there are ways to encourage its production:

Some of that price difference will narrow in the future as meat producers refine a post-CAFO production model; even now, a small hog farm, if efficiently managed, can boast lower per-pig costs than the average mega-farm 10 times its size. The Pew commission argues that if taxpayers are willing to support small and medium producers with incentives such as accelerated tax depreciation and tax credits, the cost to consumers might be further reduced.

In a time of rising consumer prices, everyone wants to save money, but we also need to remember that it was this urge to get the most for the very least that got us into this mess to begin with (don’t even get me started on shoppers who sing WalMart’s praises out of one side of their mouth and out of the other complain that China is sending us shoddy goods)!

Some good news, according to Roberts, is that even the meat companies are beginning to say that there must be a change, a reversion to non-CAFO meat raising methods. (CAFOs are Confined – or Concentrated – Animal Feeding Operations, those huge feed lots where most of our nation’s meat is fattened before slaughter.) Roberts cites a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts – I assume he means the report titled “Putting Meat on the Table” from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. It’s not an easy read, but full of great information. If you’re interested in the conclusions and recommendations of the commission, those begin on p. 61. I for one will watch this reversion or conversion to a “post-CAFO production model” with interest.

Cooking for and nourishing ourselves and our loved ones requires us to start with the highest quality ingredients we can find – remember that each time you pay for an ingredient, you are voting with your pocketbook: when you buy produce from a conventional store, 7-25 cents of that dollar go to the farmer who raised that produce; when you buy direct from a farmer, whether at a market or via a Community Supported Agriculture program, all 100 pennies of that dollar go to that producer and tell him or her: I value YOU and what you do for my family, and I think you should be properly compensated for that work.

In conclusion (rant almost over), I think finding our way back to the pre-CAFO, pre-agribusiness models of eating will be the path to keeping human life sustainable on this planet. Alice Waters, local/slow food maven, says it beautifully and succinctly:

I believe that the destiny of humankind in the 21st century will depend most of all on how people choose to nourish themselves. And if we can educate the senses, and break down the wall of ignorance between farmers and eaters, I am convinced … people will inevitably chooose the sustainable way, which is always the most delicious alternative.

ETA: On the SparkPeople boards this morning I found a link to this video from the Wall Street Journal digital network. So now industrially raised cows are eating potato chips and M&Ms?! Besides that weird little tidbit of information, the video gives a nice intro to the issue of industrial cattle vs. grassfed – worth a look!

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