The error of cheap food

At last, some happy news: the end of the cheap food era

According to Gwynne Dyer , the era of cheap food is ending. This is not another knell of apocalyptic doom. It might be a reason to celebrate. The era of cheap food was an error.

“Cheap food” was a byproduct of the war industry. Tanks, explosives and chemical weapons morphed into tractors, fertiliser and pesticides. It was a strategy of President Roosevelt’s, who had also steered his country through the tail end of the Great Depression. He pursued policies in the United States that drove production up and prices down. America now has the most affordable food in the world. New Zealand didn’t copy all of Roosevelt’s policies, but modern food production is pretty ubiquitous.

“Cheap food” thus embraces both industrial and affordable food. It would be hard to argue that affordable food is a bad thing, nor do I want to. The error lies in the perception that one is a precondition of the other. We have to find a way to decouple them, and recognise that industrial food has hidden costs.

Before World War II, average families in developed countries spent a third of their income on food. Now, as is the way of statistics, the figures  vary, but there seems a fairly consistent pattern of around 15 to 17 percent in countries with a similar profile to New Zealand’s, and 10 percent in the United States. English households spent 33.4 percent of the average household income on food in 1957, 25 percent in 1976, and 15 percent in 2006 (UK Office for National Statistics, January 2008). On average, New Zealand now spends 16 percent (Statistics New Zealand, Household Economic Survey for the year ended 30 June 2007). (There are no comparative figures for New Zealand predating the 1970s.)

This shows food is more affordable than it was, not necessarily cheaper. Certainly some things are cheaper, such as chicken, which used to cost four times as much. To some extent, mechanisation of farming and food production might have released people to become more skilled and better educated. But principally, it is probably not food technology that has driven affordability, but the rise in real household incomes attributable to post-war economic growth—growth that would have happened anyway. In other words, this is not evidence of Roosevelt’s success.

Industrial food—most of the mass-produced, widely distributed, ready to eat, shelf-stable food on offer in the supermarket—is less cheap than it looks once you calculate the environmental, animal welfare, health, and social costs. Here, we find evidence that modern food production is a failure. The ecological impacts of deforestation, monocultures, fertiliser and pesticides. The fuel, water, electricity and landfill burden. The humanitarian implications of factory-farmed chicken, pork, eggs and, in the United States, beef. The costs to our own health and the health budget of a diet rich in soy (protein) and corn (carbohydrate) derivatives that comprise much processed food, and the sugar, salt, saturated fat, and innumerable additives that make it palatable and shelf-stable. More speculatively, there might be other costs to the health of society, in the form of crime; this is bolstered by at least a bit of research . If this sounds like a litany of woes, it is. Michael Pollan has written two books about it.

We look enviously at the healthy life spans and sophisticated cultures of the Italians and the French, cultures that put food first. We’re justly proud of New Zealand’s natural advantages, which should support us in doing the same. So far, they’ve only bolstered our complacency. On a daily basis, every time we walk into the supermarket, we blindly follow in America’s footsteps. The risk is that we don’t even know it. For most people, food is just background noise that accompanies raising a family, socialising, sealing deals, the news.

Yes, we’re busy. A different way of eating takes time that busy working couples don’t have, or so the argument goes. This is false economy, and self-importance too: are we really so much busier than the Italians and the French? A different way of eating primarily requires different habits. If it does sometimes take longer, time is recompensed in other ways. It comes down to priorities. So much turns on food, we should want to prioritise it.

The alternative gifts control to the food industry. Our faith in the food industry is misplaced and alarming. I’m not mounting a conspiracy theory here: perhaps our best interests are close to big brand names’ hearts, but more likely dearest to their heart is the corporate bottom line. The two things only travel part of the way together. We might be only a baby country, but imprinting on the States is not the way to go.

Minimally mucked-about-with food can be some of the most delicious, if you choose the right ingredients. A well-marbled cut of meat will melt into perfection in a braise or slow roast; all you have to do is leave it alone. A garden helps immeasurably; in spring and summer, the results of a few minutes’ foraging might determine dinner. Some ripe cheese, properly aged and stored and cut to order—treated like the living product that it is, not vacuum-packed and left to sweat under fluorescent lamps in a multi-purpose cabinet— could be the star of a simple meal.

This is by no means cheap food, in either sense. For those of us torn between economic and environmental imperatives—those limited lucky few who have the means to keep spending— there might be a case for channelling money into better quality essentials, like food, and reaping the secondary benefits. Evidence suggests there is scope for this. Some, particularly those on low or fixed incomes, might be spending a smaller proportion of their income on food because of the rising cost of other things. The English statistics break down some of the competing costs, and there’s no reason to think New Zealand would differ significantly. Housing-related costs since 1957 have risen from 8.7 to 19 percent of the average income; New Zealand’s current figure is 23 percent. But discretionary leisure items like entertainment and home decorating show a big jump too: from 9 percent to 19 percent. There’s room here to speculate, if you didn’t know it already, that the lifestyles and priorities of the middle class have changed.

While there are many for whom the first consideration must be price, supermarket food is mostly convenience food. Some factors will tend to make it cheaper, like mechanisation, mass production, and reliance on cheap commodities. Others will tend to make it more expensive. This is “value-added” food. We pay for the convenience of not having to think about what’s for dinner. It’s not a philanthropic exercise, it’s a marketing opportunity.

What we should be doing, if we don’t think real food is affordable, is helping to make it so. For example, the quantity of meat we eat would not be affordable or sustainable if it was not factory farmed, but is the quantity necessary or good? Beneficiaries and low income earners should be supported to establish food gardens. Basic cooking equipment and techniques might be subsidised. There are emerging templates, such as the Whangarei branch of the Salvation Army, which has opened a community garden, and Jamie Oliver’s “Ministry of Food” . We ought to be doing this anyway. Not to entrenches disparity.

If Dyer is right, reprioritisation will be forced on us all. Drivers for the increasing unaffordability of food include biofuels’ conversion of food crops to fuel, reduction in crop yields attributable to climate change, the world population increase, changing dietary habits of the Asian middle classes, and the cost of fuel that drives the machinery that is used to produce the food. New Zealand is not protected from any of this. We could, in theory, feed ourselves, but in practice have diverted resources to feeding the international commodity market. We are as exposed as everyone else to the world market price, and peak oil too, by our reliance on industrial food processes.

If the era of cheap food ends, logic would suggest that the cheapest food will again be that sold locally, manually and organically grown, seasonal, fresh, and whole. If only logic would lead us to that conclusion naturally, because it is good and right.