23 January 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Sustainable Farming or Cheap Food?

We are led to believe these two options are mutually exclusive – that good/organic/sustainably produced food cannot be inexpensive as well! 

However, reform advocates say it’s possible to make delicious, nutritious, safe food available to all people of all income levels.  I read that sentence twice  –  slowly, to make sure I had read it correctly!

And the article says “it is a false choice forced on consumers by government policies that favor big agriculture.  So are we really talking agribusiness vs. the sustainable food movement?  Or is organic farming really cost effective on a large scale?  Perhaps the suggested approach is outside-the-box thinking.

The article covered 4 columns of newsprint, and I thought I would extract the salient arguments.   I was fascinated to read the points being made by the editor (it was an Op-Ed piece so to be fair I won’t say “journalist”).  The arguments in favor of organic agriculture for all make sense.   You can make your own determination!

What immediately springs to mind when one thinks of organic/sustainable/unprocessed foods is “expensive” and perhaps “exclusive” to the small percentage of people who can afford it.  Poorer people rely on the commodity/processed foods that are affordable.


“Commodity foods — from large-scale, industrialized agricultural production — seem cheap by comparison because they’re produced without bearing their true cost….. Agribusiness benefits from billions of dollars of annual federal farm subsidies, tax breaks and incentives….”.

Additional costs are “…. passed on in the form of pollution, virulent infectious diseases and animal suffering”.

“If the full cost of externalized environmental and health costs were taken into account, those same products would be far more expensive,” the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production concluded in a 2008 report issued with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Together these public subsidies largely explain why food can be much cheaper in your local supermarket than at the local farm stand.

This addresses why cheap food is “cheaper”.   But saying sustainable farming could actually feed the world is quite a claim!!

The article goes on to say that “people are not going hungry because of a shortage of food.  This is a myth”. 

Currently, the world generates nearly 4,000 calories a day (about double what’s nutritionally required) for every man, woman and child on the globe. 

Definitely makes one stop and think.

“Hunger is a political and social problem,” writes food security expert Martin McLaughlin in his book, ‘World Food Security.’   “It is a problem of access to food supplies, of distribution, and entitlement.”

Here are some additional interesting paragraphs that offer recommendations to meet the objective of feeding everyone good food.  And the sentence that stands out for me is that “…hunger advocates and good food advocates can and should unite to make wholesome food more accessible”.  It would seem obvious that these two groups should be collaborating and it is just as clear that unless there is a mindset shift, there is no reason that they would see the opportunity for synergy!

 The key paragraphs from the article:

The good news is that sustainable farming can feed the world. Productivity comparisons of organic crops versus conventional crops have been hotly contested for decades. But recent years have seen mounting studies showing that organic crop yields are catching up and even surpassing chemical-based agriculture.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that foods from sustainable farms carry a higher price tag for the U.S. consumer. Most of us can actually afford it. Americans spend about 9% of their incomes on food, according to the Agriculture Department, one of the smallest percentages in the world.

The real challenge now is making good food available to people at every income level. Currently, the financially strapped single mother has a hard time buying local and organic.  

This is where the synergy between hunger advocates and good food advocates is badly needed.

Individually, farmers and consumers can do little to fix this systemic problem. Collectively, however, we can demand important changes. For starters, our government should immediately stop enabling industrial food producers to shift their environmental and health costs to the public. There should be a redirection of federal farm subsidies away from overproduction of commodity crops and toward environmentally beneficial farming of healthy foods.

Longer-term policy changes should include reinventing government food, farm, education and nutrition programs to make healthy eating easy and affordable. A few examples:

  • States and localities should facilitate the acceptance of food stamps at farmers’ markets;
  •  school districts should create lunch programs that offer healthier meals and purchase from local farms;
  •  federal and state agriculture departments should help beginning farmers set up sustainable farming operations and reestablish programs that teach citizens skills for cooking, canning and growing some of their own food.

It all seems so logical when you see it written.  I welcome your comments on this great topic!    

The full article  and a related article One Town’s Race for Sustainable Farming

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