The Right Price for Food

In last week’s Oregonian FOODday section, writer Leslie Cole ran an even-handed article entitled, “Which price is right?” The piece ran a simple price comparison between the same set of groceries purchased from a farmer’s market, through a CSA, at the progressive Portland-area grocer New Seasons, and at the employee-owned discount chain Costco. Her results? Portland Farmer’s Market produce came out as most expensive, closely followed by New Seasons. Cole’s CSA cost a few dollars less and Winco came out almost 30% cheaper than the market veggies. While the results might not be very surprising, Cole’s discussion of the pricing was. Instead of taking the stock approach of lambasting the markets for overcharging during a rough economic climate, Cole delved into a few of the reasons behind Winco’s low prices.

In her analysis, she pointed to Winco’s reliance on large-scale, distant suppliers, as well as their centralized distribution systems. In contrast, however, she acknowledged that the produce purchased through the three other sources all comes from local, smaller farms and often guarantees a higher level of quality. Most importantly, Cole touches (very briefly) on the fact that a higher price is usually a fairer price for small producers. The massive agricultural operations that supply major grocery chains like Winco rely on economies of scale that aren’t possible for independent, family farms. As many figures have stated before, it’s not that farmer’s market produce is too costly, it’s that industrial produce is priced unfairly low. In practice, we’ve subsidized the wrong end of the system, giving large companies an advantage over small, diversified farms.

However, Robert Whelan, from ECONorthwest would disagree. In the rousing comment thread that followed the online article, Cole interjected with a few of Whelan’s thoughts on the sustainability and economy of local food systems. He states:

“Growing food on small plots of land close to Portland may sound sustainable to us, but all it really is is a high cost specialty form of agriculture that targets people that can afford to spend a lot of food. Yes it delivers better produce and more interesting produce at that. But it is not any more or less economically sustainable than big farms that can deliver broccoli at prices half that of what you and I pay local farmers.

Those big farms in Arizona and California are sustainable. They deliver products here at a lower cost because it takes fewer inputs (the combined costs of land, labor, capital, supplies, and energy) to make them than would a small farm in Canby. What they cannot do well is make specialty crops or deliver products that spoil quickly, like good strawberries. They obviously cannot deliver freshly picked produce. But what they do is grow good food cheaply so that more people can afford it.

Finally, on efficiencies, note that the energy spent to deliver produce from local farms is not necessarily less than it is for large farms. In short, if something is more efficent, it is more sustainable.”

While there may well be truth behind Whelan’s critique of small farm efficiency, but there are a number of shortcomings to this reductive line of reasoning. Slow Food USA Board Member (and Portland chapter adviser) Katherine Deumling joined the conversation on the Oregonian’s website, and we felt that her well-phrased rejoinder to Mr. Whelan was worth re-posting here:

“In response to Leslie Cole’s article Which Price is Right? and particularly Robert Whelan’s response I have a few points to make. Yes, economies of scale are more efficient, but efficient does not necessarily mean sustainable and healthy, as Mr. Whelan suggests. Yes, we need large-scale (preferably organic) farms to feed everyone within the food system we have at the moment, but in light of finite fossil fuels, global warming, etc, efficiency is really not synonymous with sustainability. Synthetic fertilizers, water usage, soil degradation, health risks to agricultural workers, etc. are just a few of the hidden costs of large-scale agriculture (some of these exist in large-scale organic agriculture as well, but certainly less so than conventional). Secondly, large-scale operations can grow and transport, and thus sell their products more cheaply than small, organic/local farmers because their operations are often subsidized by government. The “efficiency”  Mr. Whelan refers to has been created to a large degree by subsidies and consumer expectations that all kinds of produce should be available year-round irrespective of  season, location and climate. Eating strawberries in Oregon in December grown in Chile may be enticing but it is energy intensive and not very flavorful.

Not expecting to have all produce available all the time will require that we shift the way we think about food. We here in Oregon live in a region with a very long growing season and can eat nutritious, local produce year round. Many farmers around the country are extending their growing seasons and diversifying their crops, so the “local” scenario is really a delicious and doable one in many more places than one might think.

Should food really be the cheapest part of our household budget? There is a real and pressing need for reasonably-priced fruits and vegetables and I in no way want to minimize that need. I realize our current food system will need to change incrementally to change some of the structures that make good produce out or reach for some, however, that should not stand in the way of exploring the many ways to buy local produce (for a folks at all income levels) and increase the production of local agriculture. In our region, the Willamette Valley Grain and Bean Alliance is a perfect example. Some grass seed farms are being converted to the organic production of grains and legumes available to consumers at incredibly affordable prices. In Oregon we have the capacity to sustainably grow much more of what we eat than we currently do. Increasing the number of acres in food production in any region of the country will likely reap other benefits too as land in sustainable agriculture is fixing carbon and keeping watersheds healthy, employing people and keeping money in local communities. Paving over our countryside and letting California and Arizona (and other countries) raise our produce is not the sustainable or healthy road I imagine going down.

We must also ask ourselves if we want our food to be flavorful, nutritious AND traceable and safe. Outbreak after outbreak of  food borne illnesses have originated in large-scale operations (some of them organic) costing millions of dollars in public and private resources and putting at risk the health of many families. This is one of “efficiency’s” major downsides. Food safety issues do not typically arise in small-scale, localized production/distribution.

I do agree with Mr. Whelan that having small farmers bring produce to market individually is not very sustainable. More could and should be done to coordinate transport locally and encourage public transportation to urban markets for shoppers.

Much of the produce shipped to our stores year-round comes from China, Chile and other far flung places, and not just from Arizona or even California. The energy used to refrigerate and transport produce at these distances is in no way sustainable. Finally, a carrot is not a carrot as has been shown in several recent studies, e.g. a carrot (or any other vegetable/fruit) grown in depleted soils with the aid of large quantities of synthetic fertilizer (made from petroleum) has far fewer nutrients than a carrot grown in healthy, organically amended soil. Small farms that rotate their crops and grow a diversity of products need fewer inputs, have healthier soils, produce better products, etc. Large-scale (“efficient”) operations need more and more inputs to offset soil degradation, erosion,  pests, etc.  and produce an inferior product.”

You can read the entire article and comment thread online here.

Thanks for sharing