Should we pay more for food?

24 Sep 2019 | 02:31

    It’s not a question of whether we should pay more, but how we pay

    Food is cheaper than it ever has been in modern history. This would seem on the surface to be a positive development. But like an iceberg, when we only look at the sticker price above the water’s surface, we miss many of the hidden costs underneath.

    In strictly financial terms, our “cheap” food system depends on massive subsidies ($867 billion in the 2019 farm bill). Most of this subsidy flows upward to the largest farmers and corporations growing a few crops – corn, wheat, and soy – using practices that are harmful to soil life.

    The costs of this “cheap” food also show up in our health care expenses. Obesity rates are skyrocketing, along with accompanying maladies like type 2 diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease. Use of herbicides such as glyphosate (the prime ingredient in Roundup) are being linked to increased cancer rates and digestive disorders. Cheap food is literally making us sick.As author Richard Manning calculated, it takes between 11 and 14 calories of oil to deliver a single calorie of food to our plate, all while the climate continues to get hotter and less stable. Topsoil continues to erode from US farms at the rate of 1.7 billion tons per year. Fertilizer runoff has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. Manure lagoons from concentrated livestock feedlots overflow during flood events, polluting waterways. Insect and bird populations are collapsing. Our “cheap” food has considerable environmental costs that will be borne by our children and grandchildren.

    By insisting on “cheap” food as a birthright we create conditions where farm workers labor for long hours under difficult and dangerous conditions for extremely low pay. Upstate NY dairy farmers are financially squeezed to the point some choose suicide as a solution. They deserve better for providing our sustenance.

    Until we fully acknowledge the full cost of our food regime and not just the price on the grocery store sticker, these off-ledger costs will continue to grow. Cheap food is a mirage, not a reality. By embracing more ecologically friendly farming methods and fair wages while eating more in-season and locally, we can bring down the real cost of our food while making it better in the process. That should be our starting point.

    Christopher Harrison is a civil engineer, gardener, and chicken enthusiast in Warwick NY.

    Think healthy has to be expensive? Think again.

    I am not a medical doctor or a nutritionist. But like everyone else, I eat food every day. And although it is beyond my scope to provide sage advice about what you should be eating to live a healthy lifestyle, I do spend a lot of time focusing on the psychology – particularly the often competing motivations – of how consumers make food decisions.

    We all begin with a biological need to eat. Beyond this very basic level, most of us want to eat foods that we enjoy — taste or pleasure are key drivers of our choices. Yet, our decision criteria rarely stop here. Literally dozens of other factors influence what we eat including health, price, safety, cultural and family norms, availability and convenience.

    Where do competing motivations occur? A big one is the perceived conflict between healthiness and price. Many consumers subscribe to an intuition that healthy foods are more expensive. While this may be true in some cases, it certainly is not universally true. A potential problem arises when consumers overgeneralize this intuition to cases wherein the healthy = expensive relationship does not hold.

    Take, for instance, the difference in health value between fresh vegetables, and frozen or canned vegetables. These minimally processed versions are often just as healthy and much less expensive than their fresh counterparts.

    So I want to provide a word of caution about the intuition that healthy equals expensive. It can be a stumbling block, preventing price-conscious consumers from buying healthy foods. In other words, we let the belief that healthy foods are automatically more expensive lead us to simply not try to create a budget-friendly, healthy diet.

    A final stumbling block to a healthier diet is that the science on exactly what “healthy” means is ever evolving. When we encounter some level of uncertainty as to exactly what the latest dietary advice means for us, we may use this uncertainty to revert to patterns of food consumption that are familiar and comforting. Such patterns may involve consuming highly processed, inexpensive and highly palatable foods, often in too-large quantities.

    So while you can certainly break the budget trying to purchase the “healthiest” diet possible, the average consumer can significantly enhance the healthiness of their diet without sacrificing their entire paycheck.

    Dr. Kelly Haws is a professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University