The true cost of Christmas indulgence

Scientists routinely come up with new ideas for products, procedures and technologies. But they almost never acknowledge the true costs. Of course they calculate prices, the price being what the products will sell for. Strangely, though, the price seldom reflects actual cost.

Let me use scientists’ relatively newfound ability to manipulate genetic traits as an example. Imagine that we can use genetic engineering to make a new milk cow that can produce 50,000 pints of milk a year. Great idea! But such a cow would also have great energy demands. That kind of productivity would require at least a bushel of grain a day just to make the milk, let alone grow the cow. The 365 bushels of grain per year for such a cow would be obtained through competition with all other grain users. The demand for grain would cause the cost of grain to go up.

The increased price for grain would cause an increase in the number of farmers growing grain. To grow more grain would then require more acreage under grain cultivation. More acreage would require more, and perhaps bigger, machinery. Competition for machinery would drive up the cost of machines.

More and bigger machines would mean an increase in the use of fuel, driving up the cost of petroleum products for everyone. The extra cost of fuel would necessarily increase the cost of grain production and increase the cost of grain for all users, the dairy farmer and the consumer.

Modern agriculture is mostly mono-cropping, and this practice causes soils to be seriously depleted of nutrients. The increased demand for grain would further deplete the soil through compaction, erosion and over-production. Depleted soils require more fertilizer. Fertilizer is often manufactured from petroleum products. Even the use of natural fertilizers requires fuel for extraction, processing and delivery, further driving up the cost of fuel.

The demand for genetically engineered cows would increase as competition grows among dairy farmers. Yet these cows would be rare and expensive to obtain. Expensive cows require further expenditures such as special barns, veterinary care, special milking protocols and insurance policies to safeguard the investment. All of these things would increase the cost of business to the farmers and they would pass all these added costs on to the dairy producers and the consumer.

The increased supply of milk could decrease the demand for dairy farmers, and some would go out of business. The out-of-business farmers might then move to the city. The city would raise taxes to pay for the additional service required by a growing population.

In the meantime, the price of milk might actually go up from all the increased expenses, and the decline in the number of producers. If milk prices dropped due to excess milk production, the government, that is, taxpayers, would pay milk subsidies to the remaining dairy farmers to not produce milk with their genetically enhanced cows.

There is almost no way of knowing whether, in the end, the scientists would have created more and cheaper milk, or a tremendous economic morass that results in less, or more expensive, milk. It is obvious that two things in the list of issues are in short supply, maybe even irreplaceable: energy and top soil. Those costs are never considered by scientists.

This holiday season there are new telephones, electronic books, toys, games, home theaters, tools, and new fashions and fabrics. Almost all are based on the bedrock of science and technology. They are all reasonably “priced” and on sale for the holiday. But do we know what they “cost”? We used to only have to worry about our own Christmas indulgences. Should we be considering the cost of the holiday to us and everyone else? The retail stores are counting on us spending a lot this year, to lift the economy. I’m just not sure what that will cost.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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