Skip to main content Accessibility help

What is the real cost of our food? Implications for the environment, society and public health nutrition

  • Gabrielle O'Kane (a1)


The current, globalised food system supplies ‘cheap’ food to a large proportion of the world's population, but with significant social, environmental and health costs that are poorly understood. The present paper examines the nature and extent of these costs for both rural and urban communities, by illustrating the financial pressures on food producers and manufacturers to produce cheap food, the disconnection people experience with how and where their food is produced, and the rise in obesity levels that plague the globe. The paper then proposes that community food systems may play an important role in mitigating the adverse environmental, economic and social effects of the dominant food system, by the use of more sustainable food production methods, the development of local economies and enabling closer connections between farmers and consumers. There are many opportunities for public health nutritionists to contribute to the local food system literature to ascertain whether these systems improve inequities, provide better access to healthy food and help stem the tide of rising global obesity levels. Public health nutritionists can play a key role in supporting people to become food citizens and to advocate for democratic and sustainable food systems.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      What is the real cost of our food? Implications for the environment, society and public health nutrition
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      What is the real cost of our food? Implications for the environment, society and public health nutrition
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      What is the real cost of our food? Implications for the environment, society and public health nutrition
      Available formats


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author: Email Gabrielle.O'


Hide All
1. Tilman, D, Cassman, KG, Matson, PA et al. (2002) Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418, 671677.
2. Coveney, J (2000) Food security and sustainability: are we selling ourselves short? Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 9, Suppl. 1, S97S100.
3. Pretty, J (2002) Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. London: Earthscan.
4. Beeton, R, Buckley, KI, Jones, GJ et al. (2006) Australia's State of the Environment 2006, Independent Report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage. Canberra: Department of the Environment and Heritage.
5. American Dietetic Association (2007) Position of the American Dietetic Association: food and nutrition professionals can implement practices to conserve natural resources and support ecological sustainability. J Am Diet Assoc 107, 10331043.
6. Sobal, J, Khan, LK & Bisogni, C (1998) A conceptual model of the food and nutrition system. Soc Sci Med 47, 853863.
7. Gussow, JD (1999) Dietary Guidelines for Sustainability: Twelve Years Later. Society for Nutrition Education Annual Meeting. Albuquerque, NM: Society for Nutrition Education.
8. Wahlqvist, M (2005) The new nutrition science: sustainability and development. Public Health Nutr 8, 766772.
9. McMichael, AJ (2007) Will considerations of environmental sustainability revitalise the policy links between the urban environment and health? NSW Public Health Bull 18, 4147.
10. Tilman, D (1999) Global environmental impacts of agricultural expansion: the need for sustainable and efficient practices. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 96, 59956000.
11. Ikerd, J (2006) Key ingredients in a sustainable food system: purpose, principles and people. Keynote address presented at 21st Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference, Spartanburg, SC, 27–29 October 2006; available at
12. Hawkes, C (2006) Uneven dietary development: linking the policies and processes of globalizatioin with the nutrition transition, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. Global Health 2, 118.
13. Popkin, B (1998) The nutrition transition and its health implications in lower income countries. Public Health Nutr 1, 521.
14. Horrigan, L, Lawrence, R & Walker, P (2002) How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environ Health Perspect 110, 445455.
15. Kirschenmann, FL (2008) Food as relationship. J Hunger Environ Nutr 3, 106121.
16. Lawrence, G (1999) Agri-food restructuring: a synthesis of recent Australian research. Rural Sociol 64, 186202.
17. Norberg-Hodge, H, Merrifield, T & Gorelick, S (2002) Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness. London: Zed Books.
18. Kutting, G (2004) Globalization and the Environment. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
19. McMichael, P (2000) The power of food. Agric Human Values 17, 2133.
20. Lawrence, G & Grice, J (2008) Agribusiness, genetic engineering and the corporatisation of food. In A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: The Social Appetite, 3rd ed., pp. 7899 [J Germov and L Williams, editors]. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
21. Burch, D & Goss, J (1999) Global sourcing and retail chains: shifting relationships of production in Australian agri-foods. Rural Sociol 64, 334350.
22. Caraher, M & Coveney, J (2004) Public health nutrition and food policy. Public Health Nutr 7, 591598.
23. Klein, N (2001) No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. New York: Picador.
24. Conacher, A & Conacher, J (1995) Rural Land Degradation in Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
25. National Land and Water Resources Audit (2001) Australian Agriculture Assessment 2001. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
26. Mason, JS (2003) Sustainable Agriculture, 2nd ed., pp. 2331. Collingwood, VIC: Landlinks Press.
27. Ginns, D (2002) The agri-food sector in Australia: where is it going? Some thoughts on the future of the sector. Australasian Agribusiness Journals – Online 54, 118; available at
28. Pretty, J (2008) Agricultural sustainability: concepts, principles and evidence. Phil Trans R Soc B 363, 447465.
29. Sattler, P & Creighton, C (2002) Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment 2002. Canberra: National Land and Water Resources Audit, Commonwealth of Australia.
30. Vandermeer, J (1989) The Ecology of Intercropping. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
31. Chappell, M & LaValle, L (2011) Food security and biodiversity: can we have both? Agric Human Values 28, 326.
32. Tscharntke, T, Bommarco, R, Clough, Y et al. (2007) Conservation biological control and enemy diversity on a landscape scale. Biol Control 43, 294309.
33. Matson, P & Parton, W (1997) Agricultural intensification and ecosystem properties. Science 277, 504508.
34. Johnson, B (1999) Genetically modified crops and other organisms: implications for agricultural sustainability and biodiversity. In Agricultural Biotechnology and the Poor: Proceedings of an International Conference, Washington, DC, 21–22 October 1999, pp. 131138 [GJ Persley and MM Lantin, editors]. Washington, DC: Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.
35. Heller, MC & Keoleian, GA (2000) Life Cycle-based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the US Food System. Report no. 2000-4. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Sustainable Systems, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan.
36. Margosian, M, Garrett, K, Huchinson, M et al. (2009) Connectivity of the American agricultural landscape: assessing the national risk of crop pest and disease spread. BioScience 59, 141151.
37. Land and Water Australia (2008) A National Climate Change Research Strategy for Primary Industries: Phase I Report. Canberra: Land and Water.
38. Smith, P, Martino, D, Cai, Z et al. (2007) Agriculture. In Climate Change 2007: Mitigation Contribution of Working Party III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change, pp. 497540 [B Metz, O Davidson, R Bosch et al., editors]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
39. Saunders, C, Barber, A & Taylor, G (2006) Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand's Agriculture Industry. Report no. 285, Contract no. 285. Lincoln: Lincoln University.
40. Estrada-Flores, S & Larsen, K (2010) Best Practice Food Distribution Systems. Melbourne: Food Chain Intelligence and Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab.
41. Foster, C, Green, K, Bleda, M et al. (2006) Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption: Final Report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. London: Manchester Business School.
42. Larsen, K, Ryan, C & Abraham, AB (2008) Sustainable and Secure Food Systems for Victoria: What do we know? What do we need to know? Melbourne: Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab.
43. Putnam, R (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
44. Lawrence, G (2005) Globalisation, agricultural production systems and rural restructuring. In Sustainability and Change in Rural Australia, pp. 104120 [C Cocklin and J Dibden, editors]. Sydney: University of NSW Press.
45. Renting, H & Van Der Ploeg, JD (2001) Reconnecting nature, farming and society: environmental cooperatives in the Netherlands as institutional arrangements for creating coherence. J Environ Policy Plann 3, 85101.
46. McMichael, P & Lawrence, G (2001) Globalising agriculture: structures of constraint for Australian farming. In Rurality Bites: The Social and Environmental Transformation of Rural Australia, pp. 153164 [L Bourke and S Lockie, editors]. Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press Pty Ltd.
47. Swinburn, B, Sacks, G & Ravussin, E (2009) Increased food energy supply is more than sufficient to explain the US epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr 90, 14531456.
48. Kantor, L (1999) A comparison of the US food supply with the food guide pyramid recommendations. In America's Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences, pp. 7195 [E Frazao, editor]. Washington DC: USDA/Economics Research Service.
49. Bray, GA, Nielsen, SJ & Popkin, BM (2004) Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr 79, 537543.
50. Powell, LM, Chaloupka, FJ & Bao, Y (2007) The availability of fast-food and full-service restaurants in the United States: associations with neighbourhood characteristics. Am J Prev Med 33, Suppl. 4, S240S245.
51. National Restaurant Association (2011) 2011Rrestaurant Industry Fact Sheet. Washington DC: National Restaurant Association; available at
52. Bowman, S, Gortmaker, SL, Ebbeling, CB et al. (2004) Effects of fast-food consumption on energy intake and diet quality among children in a national household survey. Pediatrics 113, 112118.
53. Prentice, A & Jebb, S (2003) Fast foods, energy density and obesity: a possible mechanistic link. Obes Rev 4, 187194.
54. World Health Organization (2006) Overweight and Obesity. Fact Sheet no. 311. Geneva: WHO; available at
55. Ogden, C & Carroll, M (2010) Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, Trends 1976–1980 Through 2007–2008. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
56. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) National Health Survey: Summary of Results 2007–2008. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
57. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2010) Year Book Australia 2010, pp. 343378. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
58. Thornton, LE, Bentley, RJ & Kavanagh, AM (2009) Fast food purchasing and access to fast food restaurants: a multilevel analysis of VicLANES. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 6, 28.
59. Drewnowski, A & Specter, S (2004) Poverty and obesity: the role of energy density and energy costs. Am J Clin Nutr 79, 616.
60. Guy, C, Clarke, G & Eyre, H (2004) Food retail change and the growth of food deserts: a case study of Cardiff. Int J Retail Distrib Manag 32, 7288.
61. Nolan, M, Rikard-Bell, G, Mohsin, M et al. (2006) Food insecurity in three socially disadvantaged localities in Sydney, Australia. Health Promot J Aust 17, 247254.
62. O'Dwyer, LA & Coveney, J (2006) Scoping supermarket availability and accessibility by socio-economic status in Adelaide. Health Promot J Aust 17, 240246.
63. Beaumont, J, Lang, T, Leather, S et al. (1995) Report from the Policy Sub-group to the Nutrition Task Force Low Income Project Team of the Department of Health. Hertfordshire: Institute of Grocery Distribution.
64. Moore, LV & Diez Roux, AV (2006) Associations of neighborhood characteristics with the location and type of food stores. Am J Public Health 96, 325331.
65. Bambrick, H (2005) Is globalisation good for your health? J HEIA 12, 2124.
66. Feenstra, G (2002) Creating space for sustainable food systems: lessons from the field. Agric Human Values 19, 99106.
67. Wilkins, JL (1995) Seasonal and local diets: consumers’ role in achieving a sustainable food system. Res Rural Sociol Dev 6, 149166.
68. Brodt, S, Feenstra, G, Kozloff, R et al. (2006) Farmer–community connections and the future of ecological agriculture in California. Agric Human Values 23, 7588.
69. Perez, J, Allen, P & Brown, M (2003) Community Supported Agriculture on the Central Coast: The CSA Member Experience. Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems.
70. Wells, B, Gradwell, S & Yoder, R (1999) Growing food, growing community: community supported agriculture in rural Iowa. Community Dev J 34, 3846.
71. Kirwan, J (2004) Alternative strategies in the UK agro-food system: interrogating the alterity of farmers’ markets. Sociol Ruralis 44, 395415.
72. Feenstra, G (1997) Local food systems and sustainable communities. Am J Altern Agric 12, 2836.
73. Gillespie, AH & Smith, LE (2008) Food decision-making framework: connecting sustainable food systems to health and well-being. J Hunger Environ Nutr 3, 328346.
74. King, CA (2008) Community resilience and contemporary agri-ecological systems: reconnecting people and food, and people with people. Syst Res 25, 111124.
75. Pretty, J & Hine, R (2001) Reducing Food Poverty with Sustainable Agriculture: A Summary of New Evidence. Colchester: University of Essex.
76. Hawkins, T, Davies, D, Hawkins, P et al. (2003) Towards a Community Supported Agriculture, pp. 130. Brisbane: Friends of the Earth.
77. Bartolomei, L, Corkery, L, Judd, B et al. (2003) A Bountiful Harvest: Community Gardens and Neighbourhood Renewal in Waterloo. Sydney: University of NSW Press.
78. Peters, J (1997) Community food systems: working toward a sustainable future. J Am Diet Assoc 97, 955956.
79. Sharp, J, Imerman, E & Peters, G (2002) Community supported agriculture (CSA): building community among farmers and non-farmers. J Extension 40, 19.
80. Cox, R, Holloway, L, Venn, L et al. (2008) Common ground? Motivations for participation in a community-supported agriculture scheme. Local Environ 13, 202218.
81. Feagan, R, Morris, D & Krug, K (2004) Niagara region farmers’ markets: local food systems and sustainability considerations. Local Environ 9, 235254.
82. Irvine, S, Johnson, L & Peters, K (1999) Community gardens and sustainable land use planning: a case-study of the Alex Wilson Community Garden. Local Environ 4, 3346.
83. Saldivar-Tanaka, & Krasny, ME (2004) Culturing community development, neighborhood open space, and civic agriculture: the case of Latino community gardens in New York City. Agric Human Values 21, 399412.
84. Wakefield, S, Yeudall, F, Taron, C et al. (2007) Growing urban health: community gardening in South-East Toronto. Health Promot Int 22, 92101.
85. Griffin, MR & Frongillo, EA (2003) Experiences and perspectives of farmers from Upstate New York farmers’ markets. Agric Human Values 10, 189203.
86. Archer, GP (2003) Latent consumers’ attitude to farmers’ markets in North West England. Br Food J 105, 487497.
87. Szmigin, I, Maddock, S & Carrigan, M (2003) Conceptualising community consumption: farmers’ markets and the older consumer. Br Food J 105, 542550.
88. McCullum, C, Desjardins, E, Kraak, VI et al. (2005) Evidence-based strategies to build community food security. J Am Diet Assoc 105, 278283.
89. Hinrichs, CC (2003) The practice and politics of food system localization. J Rural Stud 19, 3345.
90. Winter, M (2003) Embeddedness, the new food economy and defensive localism. J Rural Stud 19, 2332.
91. Allen, P (1993) Connecting the social and the ecological in sustainable agriculture. In Food for the Future, pp. 117 [P Allen, editor]. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
92. Baum, F (editor) (2008) The New Public Health, 3rd ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
93. McEntee, J (2011) Contemporary and traditional localism: a conceptualisation of rural local food. Local Environ 15, 785803.
94. Lang, T (2005) Food control or food democracy? Re-engaging nutrition with society and the environment. Public Health Nutr 8, 730737.
95. Wilkins, JL (2005) Eating right here: moving from consumer to food citizen. Agric Human Values 22, 269273.
96. Hassanein, N (2003) Practicing food democracy: a pragmatic politics of transformation. J Rural Stud 19, 7786.
97. Swinburn, B & Bell, C (2007) Obesity prevention. In Public Health Nutrition: From Principles to Practice, pp. 201222 [M Lawrence and T Worsley, editors]. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
98. Kloppenburg, J, Lezberg, S, Master, KD et al. (2000) Tasting food, tasting sustainability: defining the attributes of an alternative food system with competent, ordinary people. Hum Organ 59, 177186.
99. Lea, E (2005) Food, health, the environment and consumers’ dietary choices. Nutr Diet 62, 2125.
100. Armstrong, D (2000) A survey of community gardens in upstate New York: implications for health promotion and community development. Health Place 6, 319327.


Related content

Powered by UNSILO

What is the real cost of our food? Implications for the environment, society and public health nutrition

  • Gabrielle O'Kane (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.