Friday, April 4, 2014

Is Food too Cheap?

It’s not easy getting behind the idea of purposefully making food more expensive.  Industrialized food production, global transportation networks, and the concentration of food distribution into mammoth corporations have made food cheaper than ever in developed countries. 

This can only be a good thing, right?  Particularly for poor people, who have to make every dollar stretch as far as possible.  But with endless articles about the new American farmer movement and the need to build a “sustainable food system”, we have to wonder if food is too cheap to make being a small-scale organic farmer financially sustainable.

As the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture reports, “the share of farmers working off-farm grew from 55 percent in 2002 to 65 percent in 2007”. Almost all of the small organic farmers I know can’t afford to pay farm workers or themselves a self-supporting wage on what they make on the farm, so they get additional off-farm jobs or often end up leaving farming. 

The small-scale organic farm economic model isn’t sustainable because we are competing in a broken food system.  Our food system manufactures cheap food as its highest goal.  Looking at the price of meat in the grocery store, a loaf of bread, a bunch of kale, or the McDonald’s Dollar Menu should make you wonder, how is it possible to produce food this cheaply?

The answer is the dominance of large-scale, fully mechanized mega-farms and a massive US government subsidy program that supports them.  According to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group, of the $292.5 billion in subsidies spent between 1995-2012, ten percent of the largest farms collected 75% of all subsidies.  The most heavily subsidized foods are corn, wheat, soybeans and rice; vegetable crops don’t receive any subsidies.

In addition to subsidization, mega-farms have perfected the practice of growing food cheaply largely by greatly reducing the need for human labor by mechanizing farms and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides to control weeds instead of organic materials and human labor.

This approach has been successful when measured by the relative cheapness and abundance of food American’s spend 6% of their disposable income on food compared to over 40% of their disposable income at the turn of the 20th century.

But like the old saying goes, nothing comes without a cost. 

Our current subsidization approach has rewarded growing crops that are primarily used as animal feed and keep the price of meat artificially low, that make-up many of the core ingredients in highly processed foods (like high-fructose corn syrup), and that have resulted in 50% of American farmland planted to corn and soy with less than two percent planted to vegetables.

At the same time, conventional farming practices that rely on nearly total mechanization produce 40% more greenhouse gas emissions than organic practices and rely on chemical pesticides that have been scientifically proven to be hazardous to human health.

In other words, we have created a food system that promotes unhealthy American eating habits directly tied to the obesity epidemic in America and that rewards farming practices that are bad for the environment.  To help build a better, more sustainable food system, we have to start rewarding better farming practices and start subsidizing crops that improve our diets.

Growing organic food takes more work than food grown conventionally.  Truly sustainable organic farms make compost and use animal manures to fertilize their soil instead of chemical fertilizers.  They hand-weed and mulch instead of using chemical fertilizers to control weeds.  They often grow a diversity of vegetables to protect against insect pressure instead of growing only one crop.  While far better for the environment, all of these practices require more work, which makes organic food more expensive than food grown conventionally.

Although the sale of organic foods and products has grown more than three-fold over the past fifteen years, they still just account for 3%-4% of all US food sales.  This means that the price-point for food bought by most Americans is still being set by conventional food producers, who have perfected the art of cheap food, helped greatly by public subsidies and farming practices that are productive but harmful to the environment and human health.

Bottom-line, conventional food is too cheap.  It does not reflect the true costs of growing it – not only free of subsidization, but factoring in the costs of chemical fertilizer run-off into streams and rivers, hazardous pesticides that harm farm workers and leave trace residues consumed at home, or greenhouse gas emissions due to heavy mechanization.

Sustainable farmers are competing against false food prices.  Even though a growing number of Americans are seeking out and willing to pay more for organic and locally grown food (as evidenced by the recent Whole Foods grocery chain expansion), the reality is that a farmer can only charge so much above conventional food prices before it becomes hard to find customers.
This puts sustainable farmers in a real bind: they can’t charge people what it truly costs to grow food sustainably, so they charge what they think they can and subsidize the rest with a second job and the farm work of unpaid volunteers or barely paid farm apprentices.   How will it be possible to build a sustainable, more healthy food system if the basic finances don’t work at the ground level?

We need to make conventional food prices reflect the real costs of growing them by re-orienting farm subsidies towards supporting healthier crops, healthier farming practices, and requiring conventional food producers to internalize the costs of harmful farm practices. It is worth noting that the new 2014 Farm Bill takes positive steps forward by reducing traditional crop subsidies, expanding subsidies for fruit, and vegetable growers, and increasing funding for converting conventional farmland to organic.

Yet we still remain in a system that is geared towards ensuring that conventionally grown food does not reflect the true costs of growing it.  Changing the system to make it more healthy and environmentally sustainable will increase the cost of food.

Taking action to make food more expensive?  This is the third-rail of agricultural policy.  It will be hard to find a politician, USDA official, or food advocate that will stand up and take this position publicly.

The first concern will be if we charge more for organically grown food, does that mean we are creating a system where poor Americans can’t afford to eat healthily? 

Why do we have to choose between producing food more sustainably and making it cheap?  Maybe we have the problem all wrong.  The affordability of food isn’t only a matter of how much it costs, but also how much a person has to spend on it. 

If we are to build a new, more sustainable food system, farmers have to be able to sell their food for what it costs to grow it.  And if this new food system is to be accessible to every American, all Americans must be able to afford to buy sustainably grown foods at its real cost.

As happens too often, movements of people for positive social change work in isolation from each other.  Those who support the organic and local food movement or environmental movement don’t necessarily support the economic justice movement.  One of the most disturbing facts about modern America is that we are increasingly separated by shocking and expanding income inequality and a failure to recognize the common interests between these movements poses a barrier to fundamental change.

Farmers and food-lovers must move beyond food issues to work for greater economic justice.  Accepting the argument that more expensive food will harm poor Americans accepts the presumption that the income of poor Americans will stay the same.  If farmers, food-lovers and environmentalists support the movements to re-balance growing income inequality in this country, they also support their own interests.

The American populist movements at the turn of the 20th Century were built on the ability of groups that appeared to have nothing in common – farmers and urban workers – finding common ground.  We are in need of that today; the recognition that it is better to work to expand the pie for everyone than to compete to the death for the last few crumbs.

Here’s how you can take action to help start building a better food system at the individual and systemic levels:

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