Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
By KIM SEVERSON
WHILE grocery shoppers agonize over paying 25 percent more for eggs and 17 percent more for milk, Michael Pollan, the author and de facto leader of the food intellectuals, happily dreams of small, expensive bottles of Coca-Cola.
Along with some other critics of the American way of eating, he likes the idea that some kinds of food will cost more, and here’s one reason why: As the price of fossil fuels and commodities like grain climb, nutritionally questionable, high-profit ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup will, too. As a result, Cokes are likely to get smaller and cost more. Then, the argument goes, fewer people will drink them.
And if American staples like soda, fast-food hamburgers and frozen dinners don’t seem like such a bargain anymore, the American eating public might turn its attention to ingredients like local fruits and vegetables, and milk and meat from animals that eat grass. It turns out that those foods, already favorites of the critics of industrial food, have also dodged recent price increases.
Logic would dictate that arguing against cheap food would be the wrong move when the Consumer Price Index puts food costs at about 4.5 percent more this year than last. But for locavores, small growers, activist chefs and others, higher grocery bills might be just the thing to bring about the change they desire.
Higher food costs, they say, could push pasture-raised milk and meat past its boutique status, make organic food more accessible and spark a national conversation about why inexpensive food is not really such a bargain after all.
“It’s very hard to argue for higher food prices because you are ceding popular high ground to McDonald’s when you do that,” said Mr. Pollan, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine and author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” (Penguin Press). “But higher food prices level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.”
The food-should-cost-more cadre wants to change an agricultural system that spends billions of dollars in government subsidies to grow commodities like grain, sugar, corn and animal protein as cheaply as possible.
The current system, they argue, is almost completely reliant on petroleum for fertilizers and global transportation. It has led to consolidations of farms, environmentally unsound monoculture and, at the end of the line, a surplus of inexpensive food with questionable nutritional value. Organic products are not subsidized, which is one reason those products are more expensive.
As a result, the theory goes, small farmers can’t make a living, obesity and diabetes are worsening, workers are being exploited and soil and waterways are being damaged. In other words, the true cost of a hamburger or a box of macaroni and cheese may be a lot more than the price.
“We’re talking about health, we’re talking about the planet, we’re talking about the people who are supporting the land,” said Alice Waters, the restaurateur, who has more than once been accused of promoting a diet that is either unaffordable or unrealistic for a working person.
Urging others to eat better (and thus more expensive) food is not elitist, she said. It is simply a matter of quality versus quantity and encouraging healthier, more satisfying choices. “Make a sacrifice on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes,” she said.
Anna Lappé, founder of the Small Planet Institute, which studies food and public policy, said that equating cheap food with bad food is an oversimplification, because food pricing is a complex process. Investors skew the volatile commodities market. And less money is spent on the actual food than it is on marketing, packaging, transportation and multimillion dollar compensation for the biggest food companies’ executives.
“But it is really hard for people to understand speculations on commodities markets and even how food companies externalize costs when they are going to the store to buy a gallon of milk,” she said. Besides, an intellectual debate on food costs might not be exactly what a cash-strapped grocery shopper needs right now. In fact, arguing for more expensive food seems, at the least, indelicate.
“Someone on the margin who says ‘I’m struggling’ would say rising food costs are in no way a positive,” said Ephraim Leibtag of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Even if the food budget isn’t an issue, there are plenty of people who view low-cost food as a national triumph.
“If you think that mass production and vast distribution predicated on cheap energy is a good system, then the dollar hamburger is a good thing," Mr. Leibtag said.
Still, there are likely to be some tangible advantages to current prices. For one thing, the relative bargains are likely to be found in the produce aisle and the farmers’ market stalls. The Consumer Price Index for fresh fruits and vegetables is slightly lower than a year ago. That is good news for many shoppers, including the poor who use food stamps and are experts in stretching a food dollar, said Laura Brainin-Rodriguez, a public health educator who helps the poorest people in the San Francisco Bay Area eat better.
“People here will take two buses to get to Chinatown to get cheaper produce,” she said.
Policies meant to support local farms and urban agriculture programs will likely be strengthened, too. Shorter supply chains become increasingly attractive as fuel costs rise, said Thomas Forster, a former organic farmer and veteran of four farm bills who is working with the United Nations on food issues.
To that end, both state and federal governments have begun to encourage institutional buyers like school districts to consider geography and not just price when seeking bids on food contracts.
“It could also lead to a move toward more local slaughterhouses and stronger regional meat systems,” he said.
In the category of meat and dairy, rising commodity prices could very likely help the small but growing number of farmers who raise animals the old-fashioned way, on grassy pastures. With little or no need for expensive grain, these farmers can sell their milk and meat for more attractive prices.
That is welcome news to Ned MacArthur, founder of an organic, pasture-based dairy in Pennsylvania that sells milk, butter and other food under the Natural by Nature label. Unlike dairy farmers who feed their animals grain, people on the 52 farms in his consortium are looking forward to the coming months, he said.
“The grass is starting to grow now so within the next couple weeks the cows are really going to take off,” he said.
Although prices for organic groceries are rising at least as fast as their conventional counterparts, organic shoppers may soon find that they have more low-priced options. Tighter grocery budgets could drive the expansion of less-expensive “private label” organic brands, as supermarkets and big box stores try to attract new consumers and keep established organic shoppers from walking away.
“Organics are still considered food for the elite, but private labels make organics more the norm in the market place,” said Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farm and a board member of four other organic food and beverage companies.
Of course, all of this is theoretical. If the American shopper decides cheap food is the most important thing, the intellectual musings of the food elite might be trampled in the stampede to the value menu.
Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior research analyst at Mintel who has analyzed food trends for 17 years, said it was too soon to tell.
“The main thing is that you need a little evidence before you say everyone is clipping coupons and eating dirt,” she said. “All we know for sure at this point is that people are going to the supermarket and noticing butter is $4 a pound and not $2.”