Distributed Mind

January 30, 2005

The Agricultural Underclass

by ben

Having been recently, through a combination of laziness and stupidity and refusal to go into more debt, into relative poverty, I have been painfully reminded of something I have known for a while (based on past experience as well as observation) and not said anything about - so this time allow me to say something about it. The problem is the price of food, or rather good food. Those concerned about the environment or their own health (and in some cases vegetarians and vegans) may find eating on a budget somewhat challenging.

There is plenty of cheap food in stores, but most of it is of questionable quality, from the ingredients to its method of production. Some of it may not be, it is difficult to tell (being certified organic can raise the price of a food, but some food may be organic without being certified), but based on the price one can guess, as organic foods cost more to produce in most cases, and there is value in labeling food as organic since organic foods are worth more (there is some circularity here, I know). Organic foods tend to run somewhere between 30% and 50% higher cost (and rarely as much as 100%, and in a few extreme cases 300-400% for some produce). Also, foods with things like less hydrogenated vegatable oils, trans-saturated fat, etc. tend to cost more. In short, the healthier a food and the lower the impact on the environment, the more it costs.

(As a wonderful example, at my local grocery store, a gallon of regular mil is around $3.00; a half-gallon of organic soy milk costs $3.29. The soy milk involves no harsh chemicals and none of the resource costs and environental impact of keeping cows, and can be consumed by numerous persons who cannot drink milk, but it costs more than twice as much.)

There are two main implications to all of this: (1) Those on a budget, as well as the cheap and frugal, will tend to buy goods that have a higher environmental impact. While I would love to reduce my impact on the environment in this crucial way, I simply cannot afford to, so instead I buy the losuy products. Since the people in these classes represent a large portion of the population, the current situation represents a continuing significant demand for products that are much less preferable for the near future. Thus there is less incentive to switch to organic products for the industry - except maybe for the larger profit margins, which are precisely the problem. (As a detour around this problem, producers could be regulated directly, not to produce organic foods, but to produce normal foods under more stringent guidelines. This is actually the most likely resolution, even though organic foods may be preferable still; at least the margin of environmental impact could be significantly decreased.) (2) The poorer consumers are once again held down by the system. Although richer consumers will not necessarily buy healthier foods, the poor will not have any choice not to. Rates of things like heart disease will be higher due to the iffy fats in much of this food. Probably even worse and more subtle, I suspect we will find that in a few years cancer rates will be much higher in the poor. It will take a few years' for any gap to be noticeable since most wealthier purchasers have still eaten plenty of pesticide-laden food. If organic foods become more common - and one can only hope - this gap may never materialize. But if nothing is done, I really see this as a plausible and unfortunate scenario. Undoubtedly the middle class and the wealthy will write this effect off as the poor smoking too much or something lke that.

What could we do to fix this? This is one case where the potential impact prevents a large strategic opportunity for the government to step in. Instead of allowing agriculture - with its significant envioronmental impact - continue on in its current state and spend money cleaning up the mess, or beating teh agriculture industry over the head, the government could try the carrot approach and make it more attractive to grow organic foods, or at least to be held to some sort of higher standard. This could be through financial incentives such as tax breaks or subsidies (we already have plenty of those, why not use them for something useful?) or disincentives such as even fees for conventional growers and distributors, or some other method yet to be determined. But I think it is something worth investigating.

16:58:09 - Politics - ben - No comments