Why should people have really expensive meals

Our food would be so expensive if environmental and climate impacts were included

Does that still sound very abstract? Let's take a concrete example of how external costs arise in this case through the use of fertilizer.

In a case study, researchers looked at the nitrate pollution of the Rotensee deep well, a source of drinking water for the community of Hauneck in Hesse. In 2003 it was recommended to mix the water with water from the nearby town of Bad Hersfeld because the nitrate pollution of the Rotensee deep well was too high. The community built an aqueduct to add unpolluted water. The construction cost around 370,000 euros, plus annual fees for the purchased water. People do not bear these costs when they buy food, but through the water price and taxes.

The climate crisis hits poor people harder

So 370,000 euros for too much fertilizer in the fields - and that's just one example of many. That this can be unjust becomes more apparent when you look at the global impact. The production of meat and dairy products in particular causes greenhouse gases - and thus significantly higher external costs than are included in the supermarket price. When we eat meat in Germany, people in Bangladesh or California pay with it, because they are affected by floods or forest fires, which are becoming more frequent due to the climate crisis.

According to a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), droughts are likely to become longer and more frequent, especially in southern Africa and the Mediterranean region. The climate crisis is already having an impact on the food supply and is making food supplies less secure. Poor people are particularly hard hit.

Meat would be significantly more expensive

If we were to bear the costs of food production ourselves, meat, for example, would be significantly more expensive. The reason: Several of the factors that cause external costs are important here:

  • When farmers grow the fodder for the animals, reactive nitrogen is released into the environment.
  • It takes energy to heat the stables.
  • The digestion of the animals produces greenhouse gases.

According to the calculations for Penny, the surcharges for meat would be significantly higher than for fruit, vegetables and dairy products - as we have already listed above in the text.

A study by the consulting and analysis company Trucost for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also comes to the conclusion that beef in particular should be significantly more expensive. In the study, however, the authors do not state which numbers they are expecting. The study determined the following surcharges per kilogram for food produced in Europe:

  • Beef: + 9.34 euros
  • Pork: + 5.33 euros
  • Wheat: + 1.03 euros
  • Corn: + 0.71 euros

In many cases, organic production causes fewer external costs

Ammonium and nitrate fertilizers are prohibited in organic farming. The organic cultivation of plant-based foods therefore causes less damage and therefore fewer external costs than conventional cultivation in many cases.

Two examples:

  1. Trucost's study for the FAO compares conventional and organic wheat cultivation in Germany. She comes to the conclusion that the Conventional cultivation causes around 995.85 euros more external costs per tonne of wheat than organic wheat.
  2. A study by the Institute for Ecological Economic Research (IÖW) on the climate impact of agriculture in Germany on behalf of the Foodwatch association from 2008 compares the greenhouse gas emissions from conventional and ecological cultivation of winter wheat. The result: conventional cultivation generates 223 kilograms more CO2 equivalents per ton of wheat. Based on the current cost rates of the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) of 180 euros per ton of CO2 equivalents, the result is: Conventionally produced winter wheat causes 40.14 euros more external costs per ton than organic winter wheat.

The big difference in the results can be explained by the fact that the IÖW study only looks at greenhouse gas emissions, while the FAO study also takes other factors into account. The biggest difference in the FAO study is water pollution at 985.27 euros per tonne of wheat.

We explain here why organic farmers also use pesticides.

If we look at the real costs, the price difference between organic products and those from conventional agriculture becomes smaller

Even with the calculations for penny, the external costs of the conventionally produced products are in many cases higher. Exceptions: In the case of tomatoes and mixed minced meat, the external costs of organic production are slightly higher. One reason for higher external costs in the organic production of meat can be, for example, that the animals are not fattened as quickly and therefore stand longer in the barn, use energy and emit greenhouse gases. This can also lead to a conflict between climate impact and animal welfare.

Study author Gaugler points out, however, that the price difference between conventional and organic products decreases when we consider the real price - even if the absolute price premium is higher for an organic product.

An example: Half a kilogram of mixed minced meat from conventional production costs 2.79 euros at Penny. Organic minced meat costs 4.50 euros, around 1.6 times as much. If you add the external costs, the conventional minced meat costs 7.63 euros and the organic minced meat 10.30 euros. The surcharge is higher for organic meat, but it is relatively higher for conventional meat, so that organic meat would only cost around 1.3 times as much as conventional meat. If one were to use the real prices, this could be an incentive to buy more organic products.

Is organic always better? We answer this question in our dossier.