Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Price of Food and the Cost of Food

'It costs too much' is, by far, the most common argument I hear with regards to why people are not inclined to purchase food that is sustainable - to their health, to their community and to the environment. I'm talking mostly about local and/or organic foods, as that is the little slice of the food world I currently find myself in, but the same claim is often laid upon conventional foods that are considered healthy - you know, the colourful, fresh ones that don't come in boxes with instructions on how to microwave contents in 2 minutes of less. So apparently, when it comes to food, as with many things it seems, cheaper is better. For a long time I just nodded my head when people used this line of defence - partly because I know people don't want to hear things that might challenge their thinking or choices, but mostly because, until recently, that was my validation for not buying local/organic. But the last year has one of great transformation in many areas of my life, including my diet and related food purchasing habits. Between growing my own food, working on a CSA farm, running a half marathon and taking the Locav-or-ganic Challenge while I was in Vermont, I realized I didn't want to be feeding my body cheap food anymore - it's simply not good for my body, nor for the environment, nor for that matter, for my palate, which has become quite fickle after enjoying local food for a few months (it's even shown a distaste for candy!!).

So, because I am a new convert to sustainable food and because I have to listen to people say 'it's too expensive' ALL the time, I am going to take this opportunity to defend the reputation of local and organic foods as 'costing too much' in comparison to industrially produced foods. First, however, I'm going to put forth the proposition that, perhaps, getting something 'cheap' or 'saving money' is not all it's cracked up to be. This quote, from an American president nonetheless, sums it up quite nicely I think.

'I do not prize the word
cheap. It is not a badge of honor. It is a symbol of despair. Cheap prices make for cheap goods; cheap goods make for cheap men; and cheap men make for a cheap country' - William McKinley

So here's the thing: there is a very distinct and important difference between the price of something and the cost of something. This is true of most consumer products available to us Westerners, from sneakers to digital cameras to fuel to clothes hangers - we pay a subsidized price at the local Wal-Mart, Future Shop or Shell station, for items that have been produced, assembled, extracted, etc. at a cost that we are never charged -these are called Hidden Costs, (or if you're an economist or accountant, you might refer to them as externalities). Whether that be a social cost, where child slavery and/or labour abuses run rampant in an effort to 'maximize efficiency', or an environmental cost, where toxic industrial wastes are dumped into rivers and non-renewable resources are depleted to such an extent that future generations will suffer, or any other of a myriad of injustices and inequalities that arise as an effect of a supposed 'free market' system. Well, I'm sorry to say, but there is nothing free about this type of economic system, except perhaps the short-term, almost-free prices that us end consumers pay at the cash register. Our 'cheap' is someone else's 'very expensive' toll to pay.

Ah, but to assume the downsides of this (not) free market are only experienced by far, far off nations, and therefore somehow not of consequence to us, would be very wrong. The costs are being borne by us all, as individuals, as communities, as societies. There are a few things, however, aside from our abdication of responsibility as citizens (this in and of itself warrants a blog post of its own), that make it rather easy for us to ignore the costs of our consumptive choices. I'm only going to cite one in this post, as I have a tendency to be long-winded and have been repeatedly chastised for the length of my posts by one particularly dedicated reader (*cough* TC *cough*).

So, in my opinion, the major problem with hidden costs: the 'Time until Incubation Problem' or the T.I.Pping point, if you will. What I'm referring to is the fact that many of our cheap purchases today will not immediately translate into costly tolls on the environment, societies, communities or individuals. One of the reasons we have such cheap food is because we've become exceptionally good at producing high yields of calorie-dense food on the same plot of land, year in and year out. This is a monumental achievement in 20th century agriculture, whereby technology and industrial practices were applied to the practice of farming with great success (if, by success, one measures only the output of food from a given acreage of land). So, through application of fertilizers and pesticides, increased use of mechanization and monoculture cropping, a cheap food system has emerged. One where most families can afford to buy their calories for the day, whether it be at McDonald's or the frozen section of the grocery store. Cheap food abounds. But herein lies the problem - a cost avoided today at the drive-through or check-out, through the establishment of a subsidized, fossil-fuel dependent food system, will be borne in the future.

For example, the costs of monoculturing, pesticide use and fertilizer application on the fertility of the planet's fertile soil will be borne by future farmers and eaters (that's YOU and/or your children), not to mention the rest of the ecosystem that makes up this planet. Then there's the costs to future generations of establishing a farming system dependent on a non-renewable resource - at some point, whole communities and nations of people are likely going to have to revert to a much less energy-intensive form of farming. Not only will they lack the knowledge to do this, they'll also discover that, without fuel to farm, it may be impossible to feed the current population with less energy-intensive farming methods and poor soil - so food insecurity is likely to rise significantly.

And even if one doesn't give an iota about the future societal and environmental costs of their cheap purchase today, there's a high likelihood, when it comes to eating this industrial food, that they themselves will pay a high price, in the form of Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, heart disease, etc.
So wouldn't that be enough to convince people to change their lifestyle, including their diet, to reduce their chance of getting a disease? Wouldn't they rather pay a little bit more for food that is healthy, pesticide-free, free-range/pastured, fresh, and delicious, then end up having a chronic disease or a lower quality of life due to preventable health problems?

Apparently, to look at the increasing rates of obesity and diet-related disease over the past few decades, the answer is an emphatic 'NO'.

And, you know, I am certain there are many, many reasons that people aren't willing (or in some cases, unable) to make lifestyle changes and give good food a chance, but I think the main problem is that we view food in the lens of a 'price to pay'. When we go to the checkout at the grocery store and fork over money for our food, we see it as a loss. And since we see it as a cost that we have some ability to minimize, we tend to stock up on bargain items and go for the cheapest price. We tend to convince ourselves that we just CAN'T afford that local, organic food, somehow ignoring the fact that we somehow can afford to have two cars for a family of three, a flatscreen television with full cable access, a 10 day vacation to an all-inclusive resort in the South, or whatever it may be. And if we dared to consider the purchase of a car with that of food purchasing, most of us would argue that the car is an investment - that it's necessary in order to get to work and make an income or, in the case of a television and cable, that it's an investment in entertainment and relaxation that is needed at the end of a long workday. Do most people think of food this way - as an investment? I don't think so. But really, isn't food the ultimate long-term investment? I mean, really, on Maslow's hierarchy of needs for human survival it's kind of right up there with water and shelter right? So, wouldn't it be worth taking time to consider delicious, sustainably-produced food as an investment - one that gives an immediate return to you in quality of taste, and long-term returns to your health, not to mention the minimization of hidden environmental and social costs?

At the end of the day, many of us (and I suspect anyone reading this blog is a part of that 'us') have the disposable income available to make healthy, good food purchases that may APPEAR to cost more at the till, but that are, in fact, less expensive in the long run, then buying the cheap alternative food-like substances in the middle aisles and freezer section of the supermarket. It is a matter of coming to terms with the fact that 'price' and 'cost' are not synonomous, and that your food purchases are not a matter of what you can afford, but rather of what you've chosen to prioritize. I can only speak for myself in saying that this has been hard pill for me to swallow, acknowledging that my 'I'm a poor student' defense was really not a very good one, given that I drive a car, pay a cable bill and go to the movie theatre regularly. Well, now I eat delicious food and don't pay for cable, and it's been a fantastic trade-off.

I almost want to apologize for the preachy, ranty tone of this blog, but I'm going to resist. The choices each of us makes as a consumer have ramifications for all of us - today and into the future - so I think it's only fair that we be able to speak up and encourage more sustainable, healthy ways of living on this planet we all share. Time to stop nodding our heads.

*** It should be noted that while I imply in this blog post that I accept the argument that local/organic foods are, in fact, more expensive than their industrial counterparts (i.e. have a higher price tag), this is, in fact, not necessarily the case - it's not black and white, but many shades of grey - I just simplified it in this post for the sake of argument or excessive rambling.


Anonymous said...

I love to cook, and I usually bring my lunch to work, so I rarely bring in a sandwich, and never a frozen meal. My co-workers always comment on how good my lunches smell, and if I give them a taste they compliment me on how good it is. Some even offer to trade their sandwiches or Big Macs with me, and I never do. One comment I hear quite frequently, usually from my younger co-workers, is that it costs too much to cook from scratch. They're not even talking local or organic food. They're talking about chicken legs, carrots, turnip, REAL FOOD.

Once I tried to explain to someone that if they thought about what they were going to use _______ (fill in the blank with a real food) for, before they bought it, they could use it all and not waste anything, which would save her money. I can make a great salad for $5, and divided by the amount of servings I can get out of it equals less than a $1 per serving.

The argument was lost on my poor co-worker who is still probably eating her frozen dinners while I'm enjoying 2 locally produced pork and leak sauages, a baked potato and some mango chutney.

I think once we get people to switch to real food, then convincing them to switch to local / organic food will be much easier. One you start eating real food, then you can taste the freshness in local food, but if you're used to eating a Swanson's frozen dinner, a carrot is a carrot, no matter where it comes from.


Shannon Courtney - writer, foodie, eater, cook, thinker, idealistic realist. said...

YOu're totally right TC. For some people it would be a huge leap - those that don't even know how to cook aren't going to suddenly head to the farmer's market for organic leeks! Last year a student in my Global Food Security who was the head of her dorm asked me to come talk to the 1st year students, as most of them would be moving out on their own the next year and might not have any idea about food or cooking.

Well, before i had a chance to speak she started ranting about how much water and energy it takes to feed factory cows and so on. I was like 'Whoa, let's back up many of you feel confident about cooking your own meals?' About half the girls raised their hands.

I went for the basics - like how breakfast can be fast AND healthy (oatmeal and a banana instead of a Tim's bagel or donut and sweetened OJ) and how hosting potlucks is a great way to socialize, encourage friends to cook and to stock up your own fridge with leftovers from the party! It was pretty fun actually - I was amazed at how little some of them knew and how unfamiliar they were with cooking and food in general, but they seemed interested in learning and maybe some day they'll check out the farmers' market (of course I gave that a plug !!)

Rob said...

The real cost of what I eat is ever more clear to me now that I am even beyond middle age.

My health is directly related to what I eat.

What is the diabetes and heart disease rate for the average 60 year old today?

What is the trend for those your age Shannon?

There is a real cost and a real investment here.

It's too late when you get into your 50's.