No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Katie Sauvain

In hunting and gathering societies, you followed the food.  With the advent of agriculture, food learned to stay put, and so did you.  Now, food comes to you – and travels an average of 1500-2500 miles before reaching your supper table.  In a way, we’ve gotten better and better at delivering it, too: thanks to globalization, your average supermarket can offer up delicacies from all over the world, from all growing seasons, and make them consistently available.  But as economists are especially fond of saying – and perhaps it’s particularly appropriate here – “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  When evaluating the system of food supply and distribution in place today, it is essential that we look for the hidden costs of what seem like benefits.

In the earlier days of localized trade, each region specialized in what it produced particularly well or in what was unique to the area.  But because nations were still relatively isolated from each other, they had to keep growing enough food to take care of their own in case trade routes were suddenly cut off by a war or invasion.  Today, the forces of supply and demand in a shifting global market have much more clout in trade decisions.  The guiding rule is simple: buy low and sell high – and the local food crops that have been tended over the years aren’t necessarily what sells highest.  Instead, farmers are forced to grow whatever they can produce the most cheaply, and whatever will make them the most money when they export it.  With a limited amount of land available, priority goes to these export crops.  For most of their food, these nations are dependent on foreign imports.  Politics supports these practices, as Edward Goldsmith reminds us: “Production for export always has priority since it offers what governments are keenest to obtain: foreign exchange” (84). 

In order to make a profit, many Third World countries turn to monoculture, in which they specialize in one crop destined not for local consumption, but for export.  Growing one crop leads to centralization in large, factory-like farms driven by the need for efficiency.  The environment, however, does not take well to this kind of manipulation.  Heavy use of pesticides is poisonous to local flora and fauna, and the relentless production of one crop without fallow periods quickly depletes nutrients from the soil.  The effect on the environment is increased by the need to transport crops over great distances to the countries where they will be consumed.  The use of fossil fuels in transportation contributes to global warming, and clearing valuable land for transportation routes is common.  For example, “in its aim to expand and accelerate the transport of goods along the Rio de la Plata, the Hidrovia project of the MercoSun countries will dry out Brazil’s Pantanal (the world’s largest wetland, which contains the highest diversity of mammals)” (Goldsmith 86).  Clearing forests and wetlands for farmland is nothing new, but the need for more transport use escalates the impact.

Not only is this drive for efficiency and standardization detrimental to the environment, it’s also in many ways economically unsound.  Firstly, to keep up with the markets, farmers must constantly maintain or increase the yield of their crops.  To do so, many turn to the latest technology – but while advances in technology “may raise single-crop yields…they also often lower the farmer’s net income” (Gorelick 246).  The reason for this is basic supply and demand: if output increases, prices decrease.  But if an individual farmer decides not to buy into the new technology, she’s even worse off – other farmers will be increasing their output, prices will go down, and she’ll be left with sinking prices and a comparatively lower yield.  Secondly, transporting food over vast distances leads to depletion of fuel resources: “A typical meal bought from a conventional supermarket chain – including some meat, grains, fruit and vegetables – consumes 4 to 17 times more petroleum for transport than the same meal using local ingredients” (Lazaroff n.pag.).  Compounded with the waste of fuel is the waste of the actual product that occurs during travel – spoilage rates of about 25%, according to Carl Imhoff.  In order to combat this waste, money is spent on refrigeration, fumigation, waxing, coloring, irradiation, and packaging.  “None of these processes enhances food quality but merely enables distribution over great distances and helps increase shelf life” (Imhoff 426). 

The reason individual farmers have so little choice in conforming to a system that creates waste, harms the environment, and leads to foreign dependence is that they’re either competing with or working for one of a few multinational corporations that dominate food supply and distribution.  In the United States, “control over food has become so concentrated that…10 cents out of every food dollar goes to Philip Morris; 6 cents goes to Cargill” (Gorelick 247).  These corporations dominate by gaining control over multiple steps of the process.  Cargill, for example, controls ownership of “grain elevators, rail links, terminals, and the barges and ships needed to move grain around the world” (Gorelick 247).  Cargill’s dominance is not just limited to the United States: this one company controls 80% of global grain distribution.

So in a way, the fevered increase in global trade has led to a kind of stasis: control is largely in the hands of a few enormous companies, who even have the power to patent seed strains or breeds of animals they “improve” through selection or genetic manipulation.  Instead of the rich diversity possible with a system of trade between a variety of bioregions, we have monoculture and centralized control.  Is this merely a sign of human progress?  Are we finally abandoning traditional agriculture just as we have largely abandoned hunting and gathering?  Small farmers all over the world are being driven off their land – is this something we should worry about, or is it simply a sign of a healthy turnover to industrialism?

The current system is the best one to create a wealth of choice in the supermarkets of rich nations and a more physical wealth for the few corporations delivering that choice.  But the cost of efficiency is an exhausted earth, polluted skies, dependent Third World countries, jobless farmers, loss of biodiversity, and food that is great in quantity but loses quality in its long, artificially aided journey around the world.  The supermarket can be deceiving if you don’t know the story of who grew your food or how it got to you.  The truth hidden behind those rows of seasonless, harmless-looking, well-traveled vegetables is this: instead of giving ourselves more freedom, we are locking ourselves into place. 

Works Cited

Goldsmith, Edward.  “Global Trade and the Environment.” The Case Against the Global Economy.  Ed. Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith.  San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996.  78-91.

Gorelick, Steven.  “Facing the Farm Crisis.” Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World. 

Ed. Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson.  Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools Press, 2002.  245-247.

Imhoff, Daniel.  “Community Supported Agriculture: Farming with a Face on It.” The Case Against the Global Economy.  Ed. Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith.  San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996.  425-433.

Lazaroff, Kat.  “Food Travels Far to Reach Your Table.”  Environmental News Service.  21 Nov. 2002.  <>.  7 April 2006.

Works Consulted

Lehman, Karen and Al Krebs.  “Control of the World’s Food Supply.”  The Case Against the Global Economy.  Ed. Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith.  San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996.  122-130.

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last updated 1/25/06