The Environmental Cost Of Growing Food

May 5, 2016
Originally published on May 5, 2016 6:30 pm

Let's say you're an environmentally motivated eater. You want your diet to do as little damage as possible to our planet's forests and grasslands and wildlife.

But how do you decide which food is greener?

Take one example: sugar. About half of America's sugar comes from sugar cane, and half from sugar beets. They grow in completely different climates. Sugar cane is a tropical crop, and sugar beets grow where it's colder and dryer.

Each one has an impact on the environment — sometimes a dramatic impact — but in very different ways.

If you go to south Florida, for instance, to the town of Belle Glade, there's a silent yet dramatic measure of the cost of growing sugar there.

It's a concrete post, painted white.

Environmental scientist Leonard Scinto, from Florida International University, is standing beside the pole, and the top of it is above his head.

But in 1924, when researchers drove that pole deep into the soil, they left the top of it level with the surface of the ground. Over the intervening decades, the land surface has fallen, exposing six feet of pole.

"We've lost two-thirds of the soil right here," says Scinto.

That's because the soil here is no ordinary dirt. It's peat, the remains of long-dead vegetation. "It's old decaying plant fiber," says Scinto. "Decaying roots. It built up over a few thousand years in the northern Everglades. Built up bit by bit."

For all those thousands of years, it didn't rot away, because the dead plants were submerged in water.

But starting a century ago, people drained this area and created the Everglades Agricultural Area. It's a thousand square miles of fields for farmers like Rick Roth to grow vegetables and sugar cane. Especially sugar cane.

"I would make the argument that this is the best place to farm in the United States, if not the entire world," says Roth.

The soil is fertile, but once exposed to air, it started to decompose. It turned into carbon dioxide and vanished. In another 50 or 100 years, so little soil will be left, it may not be possible to farm here anymore.

The drained expanse of the Everglades Agricultural Area also prevents water from flowing, as it used to, from Lake Okeechobee in the north into Everglades National Park in the south. The water that does make it through picks up fertilizer from the farmland, causing more damage to the natural wetlands of the park.

For all these reasons, environmental advocates and the government of Florida have been putting pressure on farmers to limit the damage; to use less fertilizer and keep more of the peat soil immersed in water.

Roth is actually in favor of all that. Protecting the environment is important, he says — but it can't be more important than growing food.

"They're trying to get land away from the farmers, saying that the Everglades is more important than food production, which I think is relatively insane," he says. "Cheap food is the no. 1 goal! It should be the no. 1 goal of the world!"

This conflict between growing food and protecting the environment is not just playing out in the Everglades.

It's everywhere, actually.

If you don't get your sugar from Rick Roth's cane crop, you may get it from sugar beets that are growing on Bill Markham's farm at the base of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Berthoud, Colo.

Growing beets, though, meant plowing up this area's grasslands a century ago. It also meant bringing in water; you can't grow much in this dry region without it.

"You got water coming out of the mountains. All our water comes out of the Big Thompson River," says Markham. "They dug all the canals to get water to these farms." But that means less water for fish and frogs and riverside vegetation.

No matter where food is grown, it has some environmental cost.

Increasingly, government officials and economists are trying to put a number on that cost. What's the price of soil in the Everglades? Or river water in Colorado. That price, if we could agree on it, might help all of us decide which food comes at a cost that we're not willing to pay.

Economist Catherine Kling, at Iowa State University, is working on this.

"In an ideal world, we would include the cost into a decision of where to produce, and how much to produce," she says.

Kling admits that this is not easy. It forces economists to be inventive. They've studied how much farther people are willing to drive to visit a pristine ecosystem versus a polluted one, for instance. That's a measure of how much they value it.

"Another way we do it is to straight-out ask people," Kling says. How much would they pay to restore a wetland, and bring back wildlife there?

Like all prices, these are based on personal preferences. Kling says that people tend to put higher values on ecosystems that seem unique, beautiful, original and natural. She hasn't tried to calculate the price that people would put on the ecosystem of the Everglades, and compare it to the grasslands of Colorado, but she suspects that people would consider the Everglades more valuable.

Ecologists aren't always happy about these subjective judgments. An ordinary-looking grassland can be just as precious, ecologically speaking, as an alligator-filled swamp. "The key is not to lose ecosystems," says Leonard Scinto, from Florida International University.

But the way Kling sees it, just talking about the economic value of ecosystems represents real progress. It's evidence that policymakers — and even consumers — are starting to balance the value of food against the environmental cost of producing it.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Many consumers would love to eat food that is green, that is grown in a way that does the least harm to the environment. But take sugar - about half of our sugar comes from sugar cane, which grows where it's warm and wet and half from sugar beets, which grow where it's colder and drier. Each takes its toll, so how do you decide which is better?

Well, as NPR's Dan Charles reports, economists are now trying to figure it out.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: If you go to South Florida to the town of Belle Glade, there's a dramatic yet silent measure of the cost of growing food here. It's a concrete post painted white. Environmental scientist Len Scinto, from Florida International University, is standing beside the pole, and the top of it is above his head.

But in 1924, when researchers put that post here, drove it deep into the soil, the top of that post was level with the surface of the ground. Over the decades since, the land surface has fallen by six feet.

LEN SCINTO: We've lost two thirds of the soil right here.

CHARLES: That's because that soil was no ordinary dirt. It was peat, the remains of long dead vegetation. >>SCINTO: Old, decaying plant fibers and decaying roots, just this decomposing organic matter. It built up over 4 to 5,000 years in the northern Everglades - built up bit by bit.

CHARLES: For those thousands of years, it didn't rot away because the dead plants were submerged in water. But starting a century ago, people drained this area and created the Everglades Agricultural Area, a thousand square miles of fields for farmers like Rick Roth to grow vegetables and sugarcane, especially sugarcane.

RICK ROTH: I would make the argument that this is probably the best place to farm in the United States, if not the entire world.

CHARLES: But when this fertile soil was exposed to air, it started to decompose. It turned into carbon dioxide and vanished. In another 50 or 100 years, so much will be gone, it may not be possible to farm here anymore. There are also other problems with the Everglades Agricultural Area. It prevents water from flowing as it used to from Lake Okeechobee in the north into Everglades National Park in the south.

The water that does make it through picks up fertilizer from the farmland, causing more damage to the park. So environmental advocates and the government have been putting pressure on farmers to limit the damage, to use less fertilizer and keep more of the peat soil immersed in water. Rick Roth says he's is favor of all that. Protecting the environment is important, he says, but it can't be more important than growing food.

ROTH: They're trying to get the land away from the farmers saying that the Everglades is more important than food production, which I think is relatively insane. Cheap food is the number one goal. It should be the number one goal of the world.

CHARLES: This conflict between growing food and protecting the environment is not just playing out in the Everglades. It's everywhere, actually. If you don't get your sugar from here, maybe you get it from sugar beets growing on Bill Markham's farm near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. That meant plowing up grasslands a century ago and bringing in water. You can't grow much in this dry country without it.

BILL MARKHAM: You got water coming out of the mountains. All our water comes out of the Big Thompson River. And they dug all those canals and everything to get water to these farms.

CHARLES: But that takes scarce water away from fish and frogs and riverside vegetation. No matter where food is grown, it has some environmental cost. And increasingly, government officials and economists are trying to put a number on that cost. What's the price tag of soil in the Everglades or river water in Colorado, because that price, that number, might help all of us decide which food comes at a cost we're not willing to pay.

Economist Catherine Kling at Iowa State University says she's working on this.

CATHERINE KLING: In an ideal world, we would include the damages, the costs, in the decision about where to produce and how much to produce.

CHARLES: Kling admits that's not easy, but economists are inventive. They've studied how much farther people are willing to drive to visit a pristine ecosystem versus a polluted one. That's a measure of how much they value it.

KLING: Another way we do it is to straight out ask people.

CHARLES: How much would you pay to restore a wetland and bring back wildlife there? Like all prices, these are based on personal preferences. Kling says people tend to put higher values on ecosystems that seem unique, beautiful.

KLING: Original, natural.

CHARLES: So I'm just guessing they might think that the Everglades because it's unusual is more valuable than, say, the grasslands in Colorado.

KLING: That absolute would be my intuition.

CHARLES: Ecologists aren't always happy about these subjective judgments. They say an ordinary-looking grassland can be just as precious as an alligator-filled swamp. But Kling says there is progress. Policymakers and even consumers are starting to balance the value of food against the environmental cost of producing it. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.