Saturday, March 17, 2007

Cheap Food

By far the biggest gripe you hear out there re organic and/or local food is the price: too high. Every time I encounter that complaint though, I try to remind folks that the price you see at the supermarket is absolutely not the actual price you pay. Pollan has put this to words much better than I ever could, so here it is (he is talking to a grass farmer named Joel Salatin):

I asked Joel how he answers the charge that because food like his is more expensive, it is inherently elitist. “I don’t accept the premise,” he replied. “First off, those weren’t any ‘elitists’ you met on the farm this morning. We sell to all kinds of people. Second, whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that, with our food, all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water—of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”

As it is, artisanal producers like Joel compete on quality, which, oddly enough, is still a somewhat novel idea when it comes to food. “When someone drives up to the farm in a BMW and asks me why our eggs cost more, well, first I try not to get mad,” said Joel. “Frankly, any city person who doesn’t think I deserve a white-collar salary as a farmer doesn’t deserve my special food. Let them eat E. coli. But I don’t say that. Instead I take him outside and point at his car. ‘Sir, you clearly understand quality and are willing to pay for it. Well, food is no different: You get what you pay for.’

“Why is it that we exempt food, of all things, from that rule? Industrial agriculture, because it depends on standardization, has bombarded us with the message that all pork is pork, all chicken is chicken, eggs eggs, even though we all know that can’t really be true. But it’s downright un-American to suggest that one egg might be nutritionally superior to another.” Joel recited the slogan of his local supermarket chain: “‘We pile it high and sell it cheap.’ What other business would ever sell its products that way?”

When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price. Look at any supermarket ad in the newspaper and all you will find in it are quantities—pounds and dollars; qualities of any kind are nowhere to be found. The value of relationship marketing is that it allows many kinds of information besides price to travel up and down the food chain: stories as well as numbers, qualities as well as quantities, values rather than “value.” And as soon as that happens, people begin to make different kinds of buying decisions, motivated by criteria other than price. But instead of stories about how it was produced accompanying our food, we get bar codes—as illegible as the industrial food chain itself, and a fair symbol of its almost total opacity.

Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner; cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it’s a short way from not knowing who’s at the other end of your food chain to not caring—to the carelessness of both producers and consumers that characterizes our economy today. Of course, the global economy couldn’t very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the American food industry and its international counterparts fight to keep their products from telling even the simplest stories—“dolphin safe,” “humanely slaughtered,” etc.—about how they were produced. The more knowledge people have about the way their food is produced, the more likely it is that their values—and not just “value”—will inform their purchasing decisions.

...there are many of us who could afford to spend more on food if we choose to. After all, it isn't only the elite who in recent years have found an extra fifty or one hundred dollars each month to spend on cell phones or television, which close to 90 percent of households now pay for. Another formerly free good that more than half of us happily pay for today is water. So is the unwillingness to pay more for food really a matter of affordability or priority?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our family has made the decision to go organic on just about all our food products. The exceptions being that sometimes there aren't organic products that are available due to seasonal restrictions. We're also feeling the pinch financially, but it's a decision with which we're following through.

I understand what the author is saying with regards to "cheap" food versus the quality organic food. I still don't think this makes sense, or even if it does, it doesn't matter to the average consumer because many people are only concerned with the direct payment that comes from their pocket or out of their account.

Like just about every thing in this world, the issue is very complex because of all the variables in place due to people and their situation, beliefs, background, and ability to change.

There can be, I believe, a middle ground that doesn't require a mass exodus of one's habits that forces Joe Public to stop his car in the Target or Wal-Mart parking lot and drive 8 miles to the country to buy a dozen eggs and a pound of ground elk. People want to shop in the grocery store. It's good to know that some stores have quality organic departments since it's still not the Farmer's Market season (which I'm looking forward to).

We humans are endowed with amazing abilities in the creativity department, and I would hope that could be put to use in this situation. When made sensible and available, and not sold as a novelty but a necessity, I believe there will be some change.


11:04 AM  
Blogger Wendy Berrell said...


You outline this really well - thanks. It is very difficult to go completely organic... and in fact, many would say that it's not all that important to do so. I've personally spoken to more than one farmer who is not certified organic, but runs a better, sounder and friendlier operation than some organic farms. These guys are the small locals.

Some would argue that local is more important than organic. In fact, in his book, Pollan outlines how some organic growers are basically industrial farming with alternative fertilizers and pesticides. He does conclude though, that organic is very positive in that it (1) keeps acreages and your plates clear of herbicides, pesticides and petro-based fertilizer, (2) provides safer ag-based jobs for many workers, (3) casts a "vote" in favor of better food.

I'm slowly concluding that with a combination of coops, personal gardens, CSA, farmers markets, local buying networks, direct purchase from farmers, and conventional grocery stores a family can eat really thoughtfully and really well.

10:38 PM  
Blogger Devon Girl said...

Love the post. I've reproduced it on our site. Hope that's okay - I've linked to it and credited it as yours. By the way, it is incredibly difficult in UK for artisan food producers and retailers to make a living - many people still think locally sourced, quality food is too expensive, sadly.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Roughfisher said...

"Organic" as originally defined in the science of chemistry, means "Contains Carbon."

There is no food product that is not chemically "organic".

Food labels that say "organic" mean that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers were used to grow the food - I think. It's a government term and very suspect.

I've been to a lot of farms, hunting wild game and fishing for wild food, and the worst-polluting farm I ever saw was an all-organic farm. I actually yelled at the farmer for the erosion, massive organic pollution, and poor land management he was using. His farm was awful.

I know a lot of landowners who farm in the traditional manner, and give their crops a shot of anhydrous ammonia after sprouting. This applies nitrogen directly to the plants when they need it. They maintain 100 yard buffer strips and runoff protection.

This "organic" farmer spread his "organic" manure on the ground before the ground thawed completely and killed every living thing in 10 miles of a coldwater ecosystem that I fished often. Everything was killed, from brook trout down to Ephemerellidae and caddis. The reason was, that he could make more bucks because if he used manure, he could charge twice as much for his product. Idiot city people will pay double for the words "organic" stamped on the packaging. But manure takes a long time to absorb, and it's inefficient, so you have to spread it early, and unlike modern fertilizer technology, it can easily backfire and wipe out whole square miles of stream.

There are plenty of excellent examples of habitat and groundwater-friendly farmers out there. But do not assume that the word "organic" means "green". Most of the extremely bad environmental offenders I have encountered in the farming community are "organic" farmers. And if you are buying "organic" food, you are often buying food that has been shipped to your location from perfectly sound farms that happen to be a 500 miles away, so that every pound of food you are eating consumes athird of a gallon of gasoline, and creates refinery effluent, refinery pollution, and untold environmental damage in the form of carbon balance.

But if you catch a bullhead from your local pond and eat it, you just absorbed pure protein free of any environmental damage. Bullheads taste good, provide perfect sustenance, and are found everywhere in the united states. they do not need to be shipped. You can catch them without any special equipment. If every person in the US ate one bullhead per YEAR, millions of gallons of gasoline would be saved, tens of thousands of acres of wildland would be spared the curse of industrial agriculture, and those millions of bullheads would be replaced by the next spring by natural reproduction.

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