The True Cost of Food

  • Posted on 30 June 2004
  • By Michael Beck

Chair, National Sustainable Consumption Committee

The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world's people, consumes over 25 percent of its resources.

And that's not even the bad news. The really scary news is that the rest of the planet is scrambling to catch up with our lifestyle. If all 6.4 billion people did so, we'd need four more Earths to accommodate them.

In response, the Sierra Club Sustainable Consumption Committee has launched a new, national grassroots campaign. It's focused on the one major aspect of American consumption that's probably the easiest to change: our dietary lifestyle.

American food production has a huge impact on the environment:

  • Agriculture is the largest source of water pollution in the U.S.
  • Our industrialized farming poisons the soil, encourages pests, and destroys biodiversity.
  • Three fourths of the land in the continental United States is devoted to agriculture or grazing, and much of the cropland produces grain for cows, not people.

The Club expends enormous resources fighting the symptoms of unsustainable agriculture, from water pollution and toxins in the food chain to loss of habitat and species.
What the Club has not previously done is to seriously challenge the root cause of the above: American food consumption patterns. By and large, our diet is so unsustainably produced that it jeopardizes not just the environment but also our health. Our diet completely ignores the true cost of food.

The Sierra Club is responding with the True Cost of Food campaign. Our goal is an America that eats:

  • a plant-based diet
  • organically produced food
  • locally grown food when practical.

The first prong of this campaign is building a nationwide network of activists who will target local markets to provide more food that is organically grown, locally produced, and reasonably priced. These goals are practical and doable. There already exists a pent-up public demand for organic food. Rapidly growing numbers of local farmers want to give up their dependence on poisons. The Sierra Club already has the ideal structure and experience to galvanize this movement.

The second prong is educational. We're producing brochures and fact sheets for activists and articles for local newsletters. We're completely redoing our web site: This campaign has one special advantage: It shows environmentally minded people how they can immediately start making a big difference in their everyday lives. That's empowerment. And empowered people are already halfway to becoming activists. Consider the value of this one fact on someone who is already trying to conserve water: It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. This equals a five-minute shower every day for six months!

The third prong is a concept we are popularizing: Sustainable Tuesday. On Tuesdays, we encourage everyone (not just activists) to make a fun-filled effort to live more lightly on our planet. It might be a group outing for a prearranged sustainable meal at a local restaurant or an intimate sustainable potluck family dinner. We could turn the thermostat up or down, depending on the season. We could walk or use alternate transportation if possible. Maybe we could hike in the park with a friend instead of going shopping. The main thing is to make it fun!

Our True Cost of Food campaign can potentially bring a whole new class of people into the heart of the Club. There are thousands of environmentally sensitive folks who don't gravitate to our more traditional efforts on conservation. But they will warm up to a campaign like this. We can find countless allies in the following communities: the organic food or vegetarian movements, the health community, the simple-living movement.

The Club's traditional work on forests, habitat, clean air, and so forth must be strengthened. Few things will help more than addressing one root cause of these problems, the wasteful and excessive consumption in our society. That's where the Sustainable Consumption Committee comes in. Switching consumer demand to low-impact food is our current focus area, but we will also educate on sustainable wood production, energy use, water consumption, and related issues. Furthermore, we plan to talk about the Madison Avenue-driven, buy-and-consume craze that has virtually become our national religion.

We'd love to have you get involved at any level of activity you're comfortable with. Please contact our volunteer coordinator Gordon LaBedz.

Are you a Club activist with too much on your plate? Here's an easy way to help! You probably know someone that has an interest in sustainable food or belongs to one of the above-mentioned communities. This person ought to be delighted to find out the Club is working on this and should be encouraged to contact us.

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