Nutrition Action Healthletter
Center for Science in the Public Interest May 2001 — U.S. Edition 
News from CSPI
The True Cost of Food

Memo from MFJ

Research Help WANTED
Interested in volunteering to do some library research for our Integrity in Science project?

Ron Collins/CSPI
1875 Connecticut Ave.,
Suite 300
Washington, D.C.

No science background required.

Thirty years ago, Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet was a clarion call to eat lower on the food chain. She argued that a large percentage of major crops are grown to feed livestock, not people. She urged Americans (and people in other wealthy nations) to replace meat, poultry, and fish with beans, grains, and vegetables. That would free up huge areas of land to grow food for hungry nations.

   (Lappé eventually changed her approach to helping the hungry. Like others, she recognized that sending poor countries cheap imported food would only kill the market for local farmers. A smarter strategy is to help those nations feed themselves, as India, China, and some other countries are now able to do.)

   But there are other reasons to eat lower on the food chain, contends a new book co-edited by David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor of ecology and agricultural science.* Among the damage caused by our enormous appetite for beef, pork, and poultry:

Vanishing forests. The 100 million cattle in the U.S. constitute the largest user of grain. And across the globe, as the appetite for meat expands, millions of acres of forests must be cleared for grazing land or to grow crops for animal feed. If we didn’t need to feed livestock, we could plant crops that feed people. Or we could return the land to forests and prairies.

Scarce water. Growing an acre of corn to feed cattle takes 535,000 gallons of water. That’s a luxury that a world rapidly running short of water can’t afford.

Abundant pesticides. Despite the increasing use of genetically engineered crops that need fewer or less harmful pesticides, millions of pounds of insecticides and herbicides still are used on crops destined for animal feed troughs. Some of those pesticides endanger farmers, consumers, and the environment.

   In a chapter on environmental sustainability, Pimentel and Robert Goodland of the World Bank propose that nations use marketplace forces to influence eating habits. They recommend taxing foods according to their impact on the environment. They would tax cattle, hogs, and other grain-fed animals the most, and tax grains, vegetables, and fruits the least. They also urge the World Bank and other aid agencies to stop encouraging developing nations to grow grain-fed livestock.

   When you think about it, their “ecology tax” would target many of the same foods as an “unhealthy-food tax.” With some exceptions, we should eat less of the foods that would be taxed the most and more of the foods that would be taxed the least. The tax revenues could be used to help farmers grow crops for human consumption, to help mount campaigns encouraging people to eat the most healthful foods, or to subsidize the cost of those foods.

   A happy coincidence. A sensible proposal. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the U.S. or other nations to levy such a tax. Instead, do your part by cutting back on cheeseburgers, pork chops, and chicken nuggets.

Mike Jacobson
Michael F. Jacobson
Executive Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest

*Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation, and Health (Island Press, 2000).

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