Hidden Cost of Food

The global food system is built upon a broken cost model

Imagine building a business that loses two dollars for every dollar generated. Is this a sustainable business model?

An analysis to determine the current cost of externalities in the food system and the potential impact of a shift in diets to more healthy and sustainable production and consumption patterns reveals that the current externalities were estimated to be almost double (19.8 trillion USD) the current total global food consumption (9 trillion USD).

These externalities accrue from seven trillion USD in environmental costs, 11 trillion USD in costs to human life and one trillion USD in economic costs.

This means that food is roughly a third cheaper than it would be if these externalities were included in market pricing.

The True Cost and True Price of Food, A paper from the Scientific Group of the UN Food Systems Summit June 2021

Scientific Group, 2021 Food Systems Summit

United Nations

Two significant reports highlight an undeniable fact: The global food system is currently based upon a broken cost model that enables food companies to “externalize” a significant portion of the actual costs related to their products.

What are externalized costs? Externalized costs are costs generated by producers but paid for by society as a whole. For example, a factory may pollute water by dumping waste in the river without paying for it. Fifty kilometers downstream, the local government has to clean the water to use it as drinking water.


Costs not included in the market price of food are called external costs, or externalities. The technical definition of an externality, according to Smith, is “a cost or benefit not transmitted through prices that is incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost or benefit.” General types of externalities associated with food include ecological effects, environmental quality, GHG emissions, animal welfare, social costs associated with labor, and public health effects.

These costs can occur anywhere in the food life cycle, from animal feed crop production through food waste disposal. For an example at the input stage, Smith mentioned potential ecological costs to using genetically engineered crop seeds for animal feed. They include the evolution of newer, more vigorous pests; harm to nontarget species (e.g., butterflies); disruption of biotic communities; and irreparable loss of species diversity or genetic diversity within a species (). The actual crop and animal production stages yield a variety of potential external environmental costs. These can include soil erosion and sedimentation; impaired water quality; overdrawn aquifers; loss of biodiversity; air pollution; and GHG emissions. In some cases, the production stage can include potential external health costs, including pesticide exposure, exposure to pathogens in water systems, inhalation of dust, consumption of chemical residues (e.g., antibiotics and growth hormones), and exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria. According to Smith, however, this pales in comparison with the direct and indirect health costs associated with food consumption patterns later in the food life cycle.

Source: The Economics of Food Prices, Exploring Health and Environmental Costs of Food: Workshop Summary. NIH: National Library of Medicine

The following reports highlight the true costs of food:

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