Is our food too cheap?

9 Dec

I do realize how strange such a question sounds. Only about a year ago I wrote a column on the riots in countries like Haiti over high food prices, as the cost of fertilizer soared and U.S. stockpiles of grain disappeared into the kitchens of China and India. In the column, I looked specifically at the problem of farming in Mexico, particularly small scale or family farms, most of which comprise only a few hectares, and lack irrigation, cheap transport to market and so on.

But now I am talking about the “First World,” curious (rather than emphatic) about what has happened to agriculture in the area where I grew up in Southern Ontario. My point of departure is the Ontario Ministry of Transport’s idea to widen the highway that runs through the village of Shakespeare. Really the main reason for this is to allow faster flows of large trucks carrying basic commodities, like grain and livestock. Local farmers there have gone from complaining about low prices to augmenting production through mechanization and factory farming, feeding the growing population of the cities surrounding Toronto. Farming as I once knew it – faded timber barns, fertilizing with animal manure mixed with straw, borrowing machinery if necessary and bringing in friends and neighbours to help with harvesting – seems to have pretty much disappeared. It has been replaced with both larger equipment – behemoth tractors and combines with stereo systems – and smaller animal sheds – modern-looking buildings with aluminium siding and extractor fans holding hundreds of animals.

The more efficient production of food may cost less to produce, but it also pollutes the environment with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and the by-now-useless excreta of farm animals. It has also fed a tendency to fill up green space with ever more absurd toy-towns of suburban sprawl and concentrated agriculture into the hands of bigger and bigger farming operations. Supermarket produce and meat is both tasteless and riddled with hormones – not to mention salmonella or listeria. I managed to purchase one basket of what I would consider normal peaches last summer, and none the summer before.

What’s more, I throw away more left-over food – including those disappointing, mealy peaches — than ever before. And I’m not the only one. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians admit to tossing well over one third of all the food they buy into the trash. That’s the equivalent of 183 kilos per person. Its Survey of Household Spending found that we allocate just 15% of household income to food compared to 16% in the U.S., 24% in France and 41% in China. And according to a recent NYT column by Nicolas D. Kristof (who also grew up on a family farm) two thirds of our calories now come from just four crops: rice, soy, wheat and corn.

I’m certainly not advocating a situation like that of China, but would slightly higher prices for more ethically produced food – as well as a more direct relationship between consumers and producers – benefit everyone? And what is the role of agribusiness in all of this? Is it possible to keep grocery prices low and stop the trend Kristof describes in his column?

Like me, that trend has made him, “wistful for a healthy rural America composed of diverse family farms, which also offer decent and varied lives for the animals themselves…. In contrast a modern industrialized operation is a different world: more than 100,000 hens in cage, their beaks removed, without a rooster, without geese or other animals, spewing out pollution and ending up as so-called food — a calorie factory without any soul.”

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