For most farmers, the decision to use chemical fertilizers is an easy one. For every ton of ammonium nitrate a farmer uses, he pays $387 and sees a return of between $666 and $2,066—as much as 500 percent. The math simply makes sense.
Or at least it appears to. A 2013 European study calculated the total costs of using nitrogen fertilizer, including things like the cost of cleaning up chemical runoff into local waterways. What they found was that adding nitrogen fertilizer did not deliver a windfall, but resulted in damages to the environment, society and public health that ranged from $990 to a whopping $5,172 per ton. “If the damage done was charged to the farmer or fertilizer supplier, it would cancel out the benefit and it would transform agriculture all over the world,” says Patrick Holden, a farmer and the director of the U.K.-based Sustainable Food Trust.
Transforming agriculture is exactly what Holden has set out to do. His strategy is to put precise dollar figures on the costs of industrial agriculture. These are the so-called externalities that we hear about so often from food-reformers who argue that cheap food isn’t really cheap.
The problem is that without hard numbers, the issue remains stubbornly abstract. This is why a financial reckoning—what Holden calls true cost accounting—is so important. Only with real figures in hand can we at last have serious conversations about how to hold producers accountable and begin to level the playing field for sustainable producers.
In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center, I write explain true cost accounting and why it is essential to move forward the debate about sustainable food and to advance sensible policies.
Take a read and let me know what you think.