Curious Cook: The real cost of food

The link between food and pandemics can be traced to the destruction of large parcels of land to make way for agriculture and meat production, which then causes pathogens to mutate and find new hosts. — AFP Relaxnews

IT might sound strange to question the cost of food because it is easy to deduce the amount from your shopping or restaurant bills. Also, for most people in modern societies, the expenditure on food is not really a significant factor. So let us try asking the question another way:

“How much MORE would you willingly pay for the same food?”

And that of course leads to another immediate question:

“WHY would anyone want to pay more for the same food?”

The answers to both questions above are linked to an existential crisis affecting every human on this planet. And they are also linked to events such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, which is only one of the serious threats arising from much of our food being priced too cheaply.


A snapshot today of the mammalian biomass on our planet indicates 60% consists of livestock, 36% consists of humans and only 4% is wildlife. And that remaining 4% of wildlife is shrinking every year. People might be shocked

to realise only such a small proportion of wildlife is left on our planet, and they should be, because only a thousand years ago, the proportion was vastly different, perhaps 5% livestock, 5% humans and 90% wildlife.

The introduction of industrial farming since the last century has exponentially expanded our planet’s food production capabilities.

Ostensibly, it is to feed the growing human population, even though the food industry has been producing over 6,000 calories a day for every man, woman and child on the planet since before the year 2000.

This overproduction has been maintained despite the huge growth in the world’s human population. Of all the crops grown, over 60% is not even for human consumption, being mainly used as feed for livestock or in some cases, for conversion into biofuels.

For the remaining proportion meant for human consumption, between 30%-40% is wasted, discarded and/or left to rot, especially in the larger Western economies. You only have to look at the bins at the back of supermarkets or even your own trash to see how much food is wasted.

Today, the mammalian biomass on the planet is over 60% livestock and only 4% wildlife when a thousand years ago, it was only 5% livestock. — BoombergToday, the mammalian biomass on the planet is over 60% livestock and only 4% wildlife when a thousand years ago, it was only 5% livestock. — Boomberg

And that is because food is too cheap in many parts of the world.

Why is it suggested food is too cheap? It is because we are only charged for the cost of production, delivery, storage and marketing. And that is not enough to cover the real cost of food.


What therefore should be the real cost of food? In audit terms, it should include at least the costs of treatments and loss of production due to illnesses which cannot be cured due to antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

At present, the World Health Organization estimates that 700,000 people die each year due to AMR, rising to 10 million deaths per year by 2050. Using simplistic assumptions, if each death due to AMR costs say, €25,000 (RM121,000) of lost productivity per person over a lifetime, then the costs of AMR today is running at €17.5bil (RM84.9bil) a year from deaths alone.

AMR is the consequence of treating livestock with the same classes of antimicrobial drugs also used for humans, hence leading to pathogens in livestock developing immunity to the compounds. The use of these drugs is required because of the congested disease-ridden conditions in which an overwhelming majority of livestock is raised. When AMR pathogens infect humans, there are no drugs usable to treat such infections. Hence AMR is part of the cost of food.

But AMR does not always kill quickly – the direct death rate is around 13% of the total infected, depending on the resistant pathogens. The problem is AMR-linked diseases can leave people with short- or long-term debilitating health problems which can cost even more to treat due to the higher numbers. Such conditions can last for years before death.

A conservative estimate may be each AMR survivor can cost an average of roughly 10,000 Euro from lost productivity and treatment costs. Assuming a survival rate of 87%, then at a death rate of 700,000, it means roughly 4.7 million people survived AMR at an estimated cost of €47bil (RM228bil) today. Put simply, the overall cost of food is already at least €64.5bil (RM313bil) too cheap at today’s rate of AMR infections.

However, it can be said this AMR-related cost would probably be swamped today by the cost of diet-related diseases which are not linked to AMR, such as diseases arising from badly-cooked food. This is true, for the moment. However, to understand the scale of the problem, the projected costs when AMR deaths reach 10 million by 2050 (an increase of roughly 1,430%) will be over €922bil (RM4.4 trillion).

But there is another much more costly link between our food supply and serious pandemics. This is because our industrialised agricultural practices are severely changing our planet’s natural ecological balance – and these sudden drastic imbalances are also exacerbating global warming.


The link between pandemics and food starts with the destruction of vast swathes of natural landscapes to make room for modern agriculture and meat production. The huge changes to our planet’s natural environments mean people and livestock are now encroaching on lands and ecology systems which had previously been pristine. But being pristine does not mean new unfamiliar ecologies are safe. The truth is we are certain to encounter new pathogens in such environments which can adapt/mutate from their original hosts to new hosts such as livestock, secondary animals and humans.

That is almost certainly how SARS-CoV-2, the virus which caused Covid-19, started its trail of destruction. Evidence indicates it almost certainly evolved from an endemic virus found in some bats, which mutated into a form transmissible to another animal, possibly pangolins, and from there another minor mutation step caused it to become highly infectious to humans.

Covid-19 is thought to have originated in bats, before being transferred to pangolins and then humans as part of a chain reaction caused by illegal wildlife trading and wildlife markets. — AFP RelaxnewsCovid-19 is thought to have originated in bats, before being transferred to pangolins and then humans as part of a chain reaction caused by illegal wildlife trading and wildlife markets. — AFP Relaxnews

There was no good reason for pangolins to mix with bats, and even less good reasons for pangolins to mingle with humans, but it happened because humans hunted these animals mindlessly and placed them in close proximity in wildlife food markets.

In most cases though, humans have destroyed and encroached so much on the natural habitats of wildlife that species which have never associated with each other are now commingling indiscriminately in the severely constricted stressful environments created by humans.

Pandemics are simply the result of life and nature adapting to severe changes in natural environments. Pathogens which had no reason to evolve were forced to adapt to the loss of their usual hosts and migrate intact or sometimes via minor evolutionary mutations, to new, more readily-available hosts in their changed surroundings.

One example is the Zika virus which causes microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, found originally only in Ugandan primates but which has now blighted humans in Central/South America, SE Asia, Pacific region, the Caribbean and other parts of Africa. Originally spread only by mosquitoes in its native area, Zika is now also transmissible via human sexual contact.


But the main story is Covid-19, which as of today has infected over a hundred million and caused the deaths of over one million people globally. Whereas the cost of Zika may be high in affected countries, it pales by comparison to the cost of Covid-19.

In the EU alone, the cost to date is estimated at negative 7.4% of GDP or €1.3536 trillion (RM6.3 trillion), and that is not including loss of productivity and future treatments of people with long-term debilitating conditions arising after surviving Covid-19.

Covid-19 is the latest in a series of nasty zoonoses (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) which has struck various countries around the world; e.g., swine flu (H1N1) started in the USA in 2009 and killed over 575,000 people globally.

Due to environmental destruction, zoonotic transfers (crossing over of pathogens from animals to humans) are now happening on average once every tree months. Note that pathogens are constantly mutating every day to fit their new circumstances – but we become aware only of the most successful mutations which become dangerous to livestock and/or humans. And it is certain more and deadlier pandemics than Covid-19 are in the pipeline if things do not change very soon.

There are around eight million species of wildlife and insects left on our planet, and one million of these are endangered by human activities. Perhaps another million species are already extinct for the same reason. The unrelenting loss of such biodiversity means wildlife pathogens are compelled to target the most prolific species left; ie, livestock and humans. What is not known are the numbers of pathogens awaiting transfer from wildlife to humans – there may be very many thousands of such pathogenic species.

Then there is the effect of global warming, also significantly caused by profligate agricultural practices. Apart from breaking up ice shelves in polar regions and raising sea levels, it is also warming up huge swathes of permafrost near the Artic. This is causing the resurrection of unknown numbers of ancient viruses/pathogens which had been locked in the frost for millennia.

Rationally-speaking, this is an impossible situation and if unstopped, the outcome is simply not in doubt.


Looking at things another way, the estimated EU cost of the Covid-19 pandemic is currently €2,631 (RM12,776) per person in terms of lost jobs/economic productivity. Would anyone in the EU begrudge €50 (RM242) a week extra for their food to avoid lockdowns, the stress of worrying about their livelihoods, their families and often, learning about friends and families dying or suffering long-term effects from the disease?

Nobody would object, especially as it would mostly be met by governments (rather than individuals) via measures such as taxes/regulations to limit consumption of environmentally-damaging foods and incentives/subsidies to eat better foods. As a result, if global beef demand falls, the Amazon would no longer be burning and razed to create cattle pastureland.

The problem is it may still not be enough, especially as costs go up every year our planet is defiled by industrial agriculture producing food we do not need. So the next pandemic may cost even more than Covid-19.

As an aside, there is no evidence to suggest humans were less happy 50 years ago compared to humans today. People adapt to circumstances, and the proliferation of cheap foods does not fundamentally make us happier, unless you are a producer of high-profit processed foods. Cheap food may offer quick and simple gratification of unsound/unnecessary dietary desires, but this does not equate to real happiness.

So, how much do you think you (or your government) should add to the cost of food to ensure you retain your livelihood, your freedoms, health for your family and friends? What is your price for the environment remaining our friend rather than one of the worst dangers humans have ever known?

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livestock , pathogen , Curious Cook , Chris Chan


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