The Call and Times, Column 14 – You Get What You Pay For: Why Cheap Food Isn’t Cheap, and Sustainable Food Is Worth It

7 11 2014

(November 7, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

You Get What You Pay For: Why Cheap Food Isn’t Cheap, and Sustainable Food Is Worth It

            We’re all guilty of it – asking why organic, local, sustainable food is more expensive than conventional; using the difference in price as a reason to opt for the conventionally-grown tomato, the factory-farmed beef, and the garlic that’s traveled through more continents than most people. Even those who are preachy about these issues (your humble columnist included), often suffer from the persistent, Depression-era predisposition toward frugality in food choice, leaving them stuck, helpless in the grocery store, debating about whether to pay a little more for something that seems, as far as appearance is concerned, pretty much the same. But beauty is skin deep, and in a few words, sustainable foods come with a whole lot less baggage than conventional.

It’s not easy to say exactly what “sustainable food” is, because the word “sustainable” has been so overused and inflated, that it’s all but meaningless. In my view, today’s sustainable agriculture is that in which an honest, conscious effort is made to avoid negative environmental impacts, to produce a good quality of living for animals and people, to enable the building of resilient communities and local economies, and to accomplish all of this without stealing from the future their opportunity to enjoy the same. This is not exactly the same as organic. Organic certification is prohibitively expensive for some small farms, and its legal standards are sometimes unfeasible, out of place, or not strict enough for a particular farm or a particular area, meaning that not all sustainable agriculture is organic, and not all organic farms are sustainable. In contrast to both organic and sustainable, conventional (modern, industrial) agriculture entirely disregards the principles of environmental welfare, community health, and non-depletion of resources, in favor of the pursuit of maximum profit at the greatest short-term efficiency.

So what exactly do I mean by the “baggage” that comes with conventional food? This is the many hidden costs, charged secretly by industrial agriculture and paid in full by the people and the environment, often without their knowledge and always against their best interests. These costs can be grouped into four major categories, based on who or what bears the direct responsibility of paying them.

The first, of course, is our environment’s welfare. Between climate changes that are accelerated by the huge amounts of fossil fuels used by industrial agriculture, localized pollution of toxic, cancer-causing pesticides and herbicides, and the destruction of land and marine ecosystems by over-farming and over-fertilizing, the environment pays a big price for modern agriculture.

The second is our communities. Conventional agriculture funnels nearly every cent of the American’s food dollar out of the hands of the farmer and local community, and into the hands of pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers, biotech corporations, and packagers and shippers of junk food. Local economies, once built on the foundation of a strong agriculture, are crumbling, communities are losing their vitality, and foreign and domestic labor alike are exploited near to the point of slavery, under the guise of further increases in the short-term efficiency of the agricultural system.

The next bearer of hidden costs is the people and, because of how closely our fates are tied, the animals we keep. Between Mad Cow Disease, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and salmonella-contaminated meat and eggs, factory animal farms are an outbreak-waiting-to-happen. Our food is littered with residues from toxic pesticides and herbicides, and potentially hazardous genetically modified (GMO) crops make up huge percentages of the raw ingredients. The nutrient-emptiness of today’s food has left us very unhealthy as a nation, and all the while, our factory farms torture animals in abhorrent, inhumane conditions, because food needs to be cheap, period.

And finally, each of these financiers – the environment, the community, and the people – will pay dearly in 10, or 50, or 200 years in the future. The growth of dangerous diseases and environmental destruction aside, modern agriculture’s rapid depletion of fossil fuels, stored freshwater, and even topsoil will leave our descendents, somewhere down the line, with a precious lack of these essential resources. So guess what? Ultimately, all of these costs are borne by you and me – and we are paying dearly for cheap food.

It’s hard to put honest numbers on the long-term risks, and nearly impossible to quantify the loss of communities and local economies. But Barbara Kingsolver, in her book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”, summarizes what we are paying very bluntly: between subsidies to Big Agriculture, government cleanup of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the treatment of food-related illness, conventional agriculture costs the average American household between $750 and $1000 per year above and beyond the sticker price of its products. So it might be worth asking that question again: how cheap, really, is cheap food?

Sustainable agriculture comes with essentially none of this. There are as many approaches to this practice as there are farms that do it, but they all have some things in common. Animals are treated well and fed on pasture, sparing us the moral woe of eating the products of factory farming and preventing the environmental problems associated with it. Topsoil is built up over time, rather than depleted, and significantly less fossil fuel is used in each step of the process. Unlike conventional agriculture, sustainable does not use toxic pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs, and regular doses of antibiotics are unnecessary. Communities and local economies can be, and still are, in some places, built around small, sustainable farms, and the environment, the animals, the people, and the future are all the better for that.

The idea for this column came to me when I was driving back from one of my favorite farms in the area. I had paid a little more for the meat that I bought than I would have in the store. But as I held the frozen meat, all I could think about – all I needed to think about – was the cows grazing contentedly on the pasture, and the pigs rummaging through the forest; of that purchase helping a local family’s business grow, validating their efforts to sell a better product and help to form a sustainable future; and all of this taking place in my state, in my community, just a score of miles from my home.

This are in such stark contrast to my uneasiness while holding conventional meat in the supermarket. What life did this animal live? What type of war was waged on some local environment, on the ecosphere as a whole, to get me this food? Under what conditions, and with what pay, were the laborers working in order to justify this price? How much of my tax money, and that of my descendents in the distant future, would be spent ironically to ensure that this sticker price was low? On my best days, I don’t think a few dollars in savings could make me stomach all of that, especially not when I have spent $3 to rent a movie, or $4 for a cup of coffee.

In sustainable agriculture, the “pastoral ideal” that so many write off as a ghost of the past is alive and well. It is possible, and it will ultimately prove necessary, to have an agriculture that feeds us all while actually building the health of the environment, the health of communities, and the health of the people. When the government stops using our money to subsidize conventional agriculture; when corporations stop exploiting our environment as a limitless source of raw materials and a willing dumping ground for waste; when people see these hidden costs for what they are – actual costs – and, in the wise words of Michael Pollan, when we vote with our forks, and our food dollars; then, and only then, will we stop spending so much for cheap food.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.