What is cheap? Think about that for a moment. Cheap is relative.
Is a coffee pot cheap? How about a refrigerator? A refrigerator costs a lot more than a coffee pot, but it can still be cheap. It really depends on what brand you buy or where you buy it. You can spend $10 on a coffee pot, or you can spend $500. $500 is expensive for a coffee pot, but not for a refrigerator.
Take gas as an example – is $2 a gallon cheap? You probably didn’t think so in 2002, when gas was in the $1.50 a gallon range. $2.00 a gallon is cheap when compared to $3.00 a gallon. But it’s expensive when compared to $1.50 a gallon.
How Much Should Food Cost?
In my article, What is Elitist, I explore how inflation affected the food industry differently than the rest of the economy.
When I look at the 1950s prices for food, then adjust them for inflation, you’ll see that something’s not right. Eggs were $.60 a dozen in 1950, adjusted for inflation they should be $5.00 a dozen. Instead, they’re $1.50 a dozen. Milk was $.82 a gallon, it should be $6.85 a gallon. Chicken was $.43 a pound then, it should be $3.60 a pound now. All of these staple items should cost 2-3 times as much as they do.
I also discovered that this price discrepancy only pertains to basic food items such as: meats, eggs, milk, etc. You know, the type of stuff you would buy from a local farmer. Processed food prices have gone up by 1,300% or more. While at the same time, the amount of money the farmers make off this food has gone down.
Bread was $.15 in 1950, inflation says is should only cost $1.25. Instead is costs $2.00 or more. Soda cost $.07 in 1950. It should only cost $.58. Instead it costs about $.75.
Is it any wonder so many people think that locally raised food is too expensive? We’ve become accustomed to cheap food. So, let’s explore how our food became so cheap.
Economies of Scale Favor Big Corporations.
When a processing plant butchers 250,000 chickens a day, paying several inspectors is cheap. However, when a small local processor only butchers 600 a day, paying even one inspector becomes expensive. But that’s not the only expense.
FSIS regulations require that every processing plant have a separate office and bathroom for the inspector. They wouldn’t want to soil themselves by using the lowly employee bathroom. This of course, means building two bathrooms, and an extra office. Not a problem when your plant is 30,000+ square feet. But for a local plant that may be 2,000 square feet, that extra 100 square feet is a much bigger cost.
Inspection is not a guarantee, unless you’re a mega processing plant. Small processors may employ one inspector a week, sometimes less. Meanwhile mega processors can easily employ half a dozen per week or more. This gives them priority over the small guys. If the inspector for a small plant calls in sick, the work has to stop. That’s not the case for a mega plant, they’ll just continue on with one less inspector.
Mass production is great for cars, coffee pots etc. because these things are not alive. Warehousing sheet metal in cramped buildings doesn’t hurt anyone. However, when you start viewing animals the same way you view sheet metal, you stop caring about what conditions they live in.
Cows aren’t cars. Pigs aren’t iphones.Chickens aren’t bottles of soda. You can’t just force millions of animals into a rigid system like you do a car, or a bottle of soda. Nature doesn’t do that. Can you think of anywhere in nature where thousands of chickens live in a small area with no other animals? I can’t.
But industrial agriculture doesn’t care about how animals live in nature. Conventional farming crams animals into warehouse like buildings where they are fed hormones, steroids, and antibiotics to make them grow fast. Then they are slaughtered quickly before they die.
These buildings can be smelled from a mile away. The poop buildup creates a noxious environment for the animals to live in. When you have 30,000 chickens or 5,000 hogs in a building, keeping them clean is impossible. These buildings require constant ventilation to keep the animals alive. If the ventilation fails for even a short period of time, methane buildup can occur, killing the animals.
Studies have been done that link cruelty to animals with sociopathic tendencies. What could be more abusive that forcing animals to live in their own feces for their entire life. Death is a welcome relief for these animals.
Exploiting Farmers & Food Workers
A conventional farmer in the US makes a small percentage of a dollar spent of the food they raised. Why is that? The answer is simple. Middlemen.
Much of the processed food consumed today goes through as many a five different companies before it reaches the consumer. In order for this to be profitable, the farmer cannot be paid a substantial amount. After all, each one of the middlemen have to make a profit. No one cares if the farmer does. That’s what subsidies are for, right?
Workers at processing plants are also notoriously underpaid. Many processing plants have taken to hiring migrant workers who are more willing to accept low wages.
Workers at processing plants are hired to to a very specific task. Hang birds on hooks, cut the wings off a bird, etc. these tasks require very few moves, but need to be repeated very quickly. Many processing plants butcher up to 140 birds a minute. This breakneck pace causes repetitive stress injuries.
Subsidies Unfairly Promote Big Corporations
The price you pay at the supermarket cash register is not the true cost. Much of it has been subsidized with tax dollars.
Let’s pretend that the government decided to subsidize every car sold in the US to the tune of $5,000 per vehicle. Except Toyota. because reasons. Would it be right to get mad at Toyota because their cars cost more? It’s not Toyota’s fault that the government decided to leave them out.
Grain subsidies have allowed the price of grain to go down over the last 40 years. This in turn has made meat and processed food cheaper. Meanwhile the cost to grow that grain has gone up along with everything else. In August 2016 a bushel of corn cost $2.88. However, in August 1974 a bushel of corn brought $3.32. That’s $16.00 in 2016 dollars.
I’m sorry, what? The price of corn has gone down over five and half times in the last 40 years. Who’s paying for that? Taxpayers and farmers. Grain subsidies come out of tax dollars. Every taxpayer is paying for them whether they want to or not. That means that vegans are paying for subsides to feed cattle and chickens that they’ll never eat.
Farmers are also paying for it. In the 1970s the USDA encouraged the consolidation of farmland. Farmers had to “get big or get out.” In other words, farmers had to grow more crops to make the same amount of money. And it’s worked, farmers grow four times as much corn as they did in 1970.
And while it’s true that economies of scale account for some of the price reduction, the question still remains. Do we really need 12 billion bushels of corn every year?
If you’re Tyson, then yes, you do. According to researchers Tim Wise and Alicia Harvie at Tufts, the lower prices of corn and soy have saved chicken producers $11.3 billion between 1997 and 2005.[6,7]
You might say: ‘Well that’s good for farmers.’ Not if they’re growing for Tyson. Tyson growers don’t buy the feed, or the chicks. They are merely paid to raise the chickens. Tyson alone is reaping the profits of low cost feed.
On the other hand, most local farms use NON-GMO or organic feed. Neither of which has subsidies. In other words, we’re Toyota.
Cheap Fuel & Cheap Pollution
When you truck food thousands of miles, you need cheap fuel. Bananas are cheap for one main reason. Mass transit using cheap fuel.
Currently our conventional farm system relies on mining the earth and oceans to make cheap fertilizer. This fertilizer is used on soil that has long since been depleted of its fertility. Hence the need for fertilizer. This fertilizer is made in chemical plants that pollute the environment.
Farmers routinely over fertilize their fields. They call this insurance. This extra fertilizer cannot be absorbed by the soil. It ends up being washed away by rain or irrigation. The fertilizer contaminated water makes its way to the nearest creek or river, eventually making its way to the mississippi river and out to the gulf of mexico. A dead zone occurs every summer in the Gulf of Mexico when runoff from industrial farming makes its way down the river.[9, 10]
The worst industrial disaster in history was caused by a pesticide plant. In 1984 the Union Carbide company operating in Bhopal india, had a gas leak. Over 500,000 people were exposed to Methyl Isocyanate. The death toll was at least 3,787, but more deaths are claimed.
If more farming converted to Organic and subsequently we reduced our use of petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides we’d see petroleum prices drop. We would also see our environment improve and reduce associated costs.
Are You a Cheap Food Family?
If the only food you buy for your family is the cheapest food available, what message does that send? Does eating cheap food make your kids feel special? Or does it send the message: “you’re not worth buying good food for.”
Our children learn from our example. You can preach and lecture all you want, but your actions speak louder than your words. If you talk about eating healthy, but continue to buy cheap food, your children will see through your hollow words.
Every time your child eats, their body uses that food as building material. Is that building material quality? Or is it like building a house using rotted wood. You may have gotten a good deal on it. But it’ll cost you later.
Look at the pizza rolls in your freezer or the sugary cereal in your pantry. Do you seriously believe that this food is healthy? Are you confident that it is providing quality building materials for you child’s growing body? Are you satisfied with the synthetic vitamins listed on the nutritional guidelines label?
Local pasture raised meat and eggs are an excellent example of nutrient dense food. Grass finished beef has up to six times the Omega 3 fatty acids as feedlot beef. Grass finished beef has over four times the Vitamin E as feedlot beef. The list goes on and on. But it boils down to one thing. You get more nutrients for your money with local pasture raised food.
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan, 2016
- Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser, 2012