The Cost of Local Eating - a Two Part Series

Is it worth the extra expense to eat locally produced meat?

One thing I struggle with is the cost of eating local.  And by cost I mean the immediate effect upon my wallet.  Because, let’s face it, buying food at a farm or the farmer’s market is significantly more expensive than buying it at the supermarket. 

This week I’m going to concentrate on the cost of meat.

At the farmer’s market last week, I bought a six-pound whole chicken for $36, and a one and a half pound sirloin steak for $22.

Comparing these prices with those at my local supermarket, the chicken there  cost $.89/lb and the sirloin was $3.49/lb.

The gap between the two is breathtaking.  Sure the farmer’s market chicken tasted a little better, and I’ve visited the farm, so I know how the chicken lived and all that, but really, how can this locally farmed chicken really cost almost EIGHT TIMES as much as a supermarket chicken?  What are these local farmers doing?  Clearly, they don’t understand the basics of good business.

From a budget conscious point of view, the supermarket is obviously the way to go.  But there’s a bigger picture here, that of the impact on the environment, on the farmers, on the animals themselves, and on your health from factory farmed meat production.  And, perhaps most important to acknowledge, is how factory farms benefit from economies of scale, laws that are written to their advantage and government subsidies.[i]    

The gap between local versus factory farms is really what is breathtaking.

Small local farmers, like the one I bought my steak from, have to work with local towns and comply with local ordinances. Large scale chicken, beef and pork operations, for example, who provide significant jobs to a local community, benefit from lax oversight and plenty of legal loopholes that permit them to pollute their local environments. [ii] Towns like Ossining and Croton spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars per year treating their human sewage, but large scale meat producers are exempt from treating any of the sewage runoff from their farms and feedlots.  This impact on the local environments is immense and largely ignored.

These enormous feedlot operations also crowd their animals together.  Cattle operations, for example, practically force feed their cattle so that they can reach slaughter weight ever faster.  One hundred years ago, when cattle was raised almost entirely on grass, it took nearly 5 years to reach slaughter weight.   In the 1950s, it took about three years, and now it takes about 16 months.[iii]  From a business point of view, that’s your bottom line.  There’s your $3.49/lb sirloin as opposed to the farmer’s market $15/lb.  What could possibly be the downside to cheaper food?

Well, cheap food is a myth.  You are paying $15/lb for that $3.49/lb sirloin whether you know it or not.

Not only can meat producers realize a profit quicker when it only takes 16 months to raise a fully grown steer, they benefit from cheap corn-based feed that is also subsidized by the government.  And your taxes pay for these subsidies given to private corporations.

In addition, producing meat in this fashion has caused a drastic increase in infection and illness in the animals due to over-crowding and the afore-mentioned manure issues in these über-efficient feedlots. The USDA estimates that feedlot operations produce 335 million tons of raw sewage waste each year.  That’s over 40 times the amount that humans produce.  And this waste gets released into the environment.  These massive amounts of animal waste are collected in sheds and lagoons, but these containment measures do nothing to prevent infection microbes from getting into the air, soil and water.  These microbes are further released into the environment when they’re transported off the farms by the farm trucks, workers and by the practice of spreading this manure on fields.  And it infects and inoculates the surrounding areas with genetic material that enables the spread of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. [iv]`  Think about that the next time you have to give your child antibiotics for strep or pneumonia.

And the simple truth is that the individual suffering of the animals is acute in these “Conventional Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs).  There’s really no way around that.  Crowded in filthy conditions, up to their haunches in manure at times, often with no way to move freely – well, no doubt some hippie friend of yours has posted pictures on Facebook of hogs encased in metal cages, or chicken crammed into giant buildings, or mud-encrusted steer swimming in muck.  (If not, watch the documentary “Food Inc” for an eye-opener.)  Logic holds that animals raised in sub-standard living conditions with produce sub-standard food for humans.

Ach, I don’t want to be like my tiresome PETA friends who rail against cruelty to animals, who launch into graphic discussions of the horrors of CAFOs, who harangue me about my food choices and how they affect the environment.  But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and the more I learn about factory farming, the more disgusted I become. 

Sure, that farmer’s market sirloin is heinously expensive, so you know what?  We don’t eat it very often.  Here’s a radical thought -- maybe we shouldn’t be eating meat every day.  Maybe the financial realities of eating locally will help nudge us in a better direction, diet-wise. 

Maybe this is the market at work.

Next week – Is locally grown produce really worth the extra cost and effort?



[i] http://farm.ewg.org/region?fips=00000&regname=UnitedStatesFarmSubsidySummary

[ii] [http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/nspills.asp]

[iii] http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/31/magazine/power-steer.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

[iv] [http://www.jhu.edu/jhumag/0609web/farm.html ]

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