Does sustainable food simply cost too much to be feasible? After all, industrial food is cheap not only because of the efficiencies of scale and technologies, but also because the industrial system is so good at ignoring, or externalizing, costs such as ecological degradation or poor nutrition or underpaid labor. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the hidden costs of conventional meat production alone are huge—each year, salmonella outbreaks cost an estimated $2.5 billion; properly cleaning up manure leaks would cost at least $4 billion. If our food system reinternalizes such costs—say, by shifting from feedlots to a less concentrated free-range model—food prices will rise. Grass-fed cattle can take twice as long to reach slaughter weight as corn-fed cattle and require more pastureland at a time when pastureland is in short supply—which is why grass-fed beef costs about 30 percent more than conventional beef.
Does that matter? Most Americans could afford to spend more for their food—or could afford to eat less of the resource-intensive foods. It's no coincidence that Americans, who spend less than a dime of every dollar on food—the least in the world—also consume about 200 pounds of meat per capita each year—the most in the world. But in many other parts of the world, spending more on food or cutting back on meat aren't practical or ethical options; nor are investing in vertical farms, store-top produce, or many of the other more Earth-friendly but more capital-intensive farming technologies. As Iowa State's Liebman notes, the resources for sustainable farming—not only adequate soil and water, but access to capital, technology, and market—aren't distributed fairly or evenly