An interesting word I’m betting we’ll be hearing a lot more.   Merriam Webster definition: A secondary or unintended consequence <pollution and other externalities of manufacturing>.

Externalities are not necessarily negative, though the current usage implies that they are.  Example: today the Supreme Court will hear a case about air pollution caused by burning coal for electricity generation blowing across state lines.  Who pays, is the issue.  The underlying idea is that with an externality, neither the cost (or benefit, for that matter) is accounted for in the event, whatever it might be.  So if you are barbecuing in your yard (in the example from Marketplace) and the smoke drifts across into your asthmatic neighbor’s yard, who is responsible for the harm done?  It’s akin to the irrational notion that in the interdependent web of life that is our world, there is such a thing as ‘away.’

No-Away In terms of our current food system, unaccounted for costs include everything from the impacts on the environment (transportation, farming methods), to waste (1/3 of all food), to the healthcare impacts from poor nutrition, e.g. the obesity epidemic that comes from a diet high in cheap fats and sugars, that is, processed and fast food and sodas.

If these externalities were included in the actual cost of our food, we might be surprised to find that local, organic and sustainably-farmed food is actually cheaper.  What are the chances externalities will become part of the business equation any time soon?  It may be trending, but I’m not holding my breath.  However,  a new report from Harvard School of Public Health, see the article in Smart Planet, indicates we don’t have to wait for the powers that be to act in our behalf.  It found that although a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts costs more than one based on processed foods, the difference is about $1.50.  The difference in your well-being: beyond calculation.

For an even more complete discussion on this important topic, check out: How Different Would the World Be If We Paid the True Cost of Food and Farming.


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