The Price of Food

A few weeks ago, I ran across a couple media reports that struck me as significantly if not obviously related.

One was a newspaper article about how farms, especially corn farms, are being targeted by speculators

The other was an NPR report about a town in Vermont with a lot of organic farms and a bumper crop of local agriculture in general – Hardiwick, dubbed in the title of a recent book “The Town that Food Saved.”

The connection that interests me isn’t just that both reports concern food. It’s that they’re both about what we think food is worth, or even what it’s for.

The USA Today article documented how speculators, seeing the rising price of both corn and farmland itself, are getting into the market. Global demand for grain is rising (and so is, unfortunately, demand for ethanol), but arable land is shrinking.

The NPR piece, meanwhile, told how Hardwick was reinventing itself as a symbol of the local-food movement – but also noted that food grown on small local farms costs more than stuff grown by agricultural giants and then shipped to Hardiwick from thousands of miles away.

The real-estate speculation is a prime example of what happens when agriculture isn’t about feeding people, but rather about capitalism. (It also indirectly demonstrates the effects of government corn subsidies, of course, and the fact that most U.S. corn is grown as either animal feed or ethanol; but leave those facts aside for now.) Actual farmers are priced off the land, which is now simply a commodity – as is the corn grown on it. In Stuffed and Starved, his great book about the global food crisis, Raj Patel demonstrates what this commodification means: We end up growing more food than we actually need (because to someone it makes economic sense to do so), but people still go hungry, because to someone it makes economic sense to stockpile food that’s “too cheap” rather than sell it.

Meanwhile, relatively few people are going hungry in a place like Hardiwick. The people there are instead the dubious beneficiaries of a system that provides them “cheap food” no matter what the cost. More people in Hardiwick are growing food in the way we know to be most healthful for both people and the planet – organically and nearby. But that food is seen by many as “too expensive” – because it must compete with food grown far away, in really destructive ways. (I see the same thing happen here when even customers at farmers’ markets bypass the lone organic stand for cheaper, nonorganic fare.)

The monocrops of corn and soybeans thousands of acres big; the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides those crops are doused with; the millions of gallons of fuel it takes to transport the crops to market – we don’t pay at the cash register for the havoc this all wreaks on air, land and water.

With soils made poorer, water tables drawn down and ecosystems dying, our current food system is one that can’t last. And we don’t even seem to mind that the produce we get this way isn’t fresh, or that the workers who harvest it might be poorly treated, or indeed even enslaved; or that the profits leave our communities (more of the money going to middlemen and marketers than to the farmers).

All of these destructive shortcuts instead redound to the advantage of the agri-giants – and to the detriment of small organic growers like those around Hardiwick, whom the price stickers penalize for doing things right.

Somewhere, the balance must be found again. We need to get back in touch with where our food comes from, yes – but also, the prices we pay must reflect the real and total cost of what it takes to produce that food. Would that make food unaffordable? I’m betting it wouldn’t, if we returned to treating food as a necessary gift of nature, rather than simply as part of someone’s stock portfolio.

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