The hidden price of food

The hidden price of food

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By Miguel Ángel Ortega

Probably the most obvious impact of agriculture on nature is the deforestation of huge areas to get farmland. This practice is responsible for the current landscape of large areas both in Spain and in other countries. The growth of the world population entails a continuous expansion of agricultural lands at the cost of ecosystems with high biodiversity, such as the tropical forests and other forests of developing countries. In this sense, two of the most harmful crops for the planet's health are soybeans and oil palm. The oil extracted from this palm tree is an ingredient in margarines, cereals, chips, sweets, soaps, cosmetics, etc. It is listed on food labels as "vegetable fats or oils."

Long-distance trade increases the damage on the climate, since it increases the burning of fossil fuels to transport products and, with it, CO2 emissions, the main gas responsible for climate change. This is one of the features of Globalization, and it also affects agriculture. For this reason, it is highly advisable to buy seasonal food produced as close to the point of consumption as possible. This approach is now somewhat controversial, since in the opinion of some institutions it harms the economy of developing agro-exporting countries. In my opinion, what really hurts these countries is their specialization in a type of export agriculture that entails considerable disadvantages, among which we can mention:

  • The concentration of the country's investment and production capacity in a low-added-level generating activity that is highly exposed to price fluctuations.
  • The generation of social imbalances, since it is intensive agriculture that requires large areas, managed by agro-industrial companies and that marginalizes small owners. In addition, it is intended more to cover export demand than internal demand itself, which leads to the paradox that some food-exporting countries periodically suffer from famine.
  • Its high environmental impact and high consumption of natural resources, such as water and energy.

The most socially and environmentally damaging dimension of agriculture is production not directly linked to human food. Here comes the production of "food" for cars (biofuels) and for livestock. Agrofuels were promoted precisely to replace gasoline and diesel and thus fight against climate change. But several studies have shown that very often the cultivation of these plants, their processing and transportation consumes more energy and produces more greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, methane, N2O) than those avoided by burning them in fuel engines. Cars. Furthermore, from the ethical point of view, it is quite questionable to dedicate land to "feed" cars, when there are still many human food needs to be satisfied.

In the case of feed and fodder for raising livestock there is also a very inefficient use of land. According to a study cited in the Revista Ambienta (edited by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment), while to produce a kg of vegetables requires 1.7 m2 of surface, to produce a kg of meat it is necessary to occupy about 7 m2 . Importing livestock feed is a huge expense, responsible for the deficit in Spanish agricultural trade. This is another very unfavorable aspect, since the vast majority of these imports come from America, and transport implies an additional pollution and greenhouse effect, responsible for climate change. According to the aforementioned article in the Ambienta Magazine, if we wanted to produce in Spain the amount of imported feed and fodder that our cattle eat, we would need to dedicate an area equivalent to that of Navarra exclusively for this purpose. From an energy point of view, it is absurd since, again according to Ambienta, the energy contained in the food that we Spanish consume amounts to 235 Petajoules, but 1,400 are spent to produce it (equivalent to almost 239 billion calories).

Therefore, it is not surprising that the production of a 120 g beef fillet for the Spanish market generates, in the best of cases, 3.18 kg of CO2, which is comparable to traveling 22 km with a car of the type medium. And I say "in the best of cases" because this figure arises from assuming that the imported meat does not come from lands that were previously forest, and that is a lot to assume. In energy and environmental terms, the consumption of vegetables is much more efficient.

Once again we find an example of what “it is foolish to confuse value and price”. In reality we live on borrowed money, because a part of the real price of things will be paid by future generations, who will live on a more deteriorated planet, extreme in terms of climate and who, therefore, will have to bear the economic costs of those worst living conditions. We need to be very aware of all this, because, ultimately, our comfort can mean the misfortune of other people, many of whom were not even born.

By Miguel Ángel Ortega. Economist and director of the Reforesta Association

Reforesta Association

Video: The hidden war over grocery shelf space (July 2022).


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