How cheap food harms us
The United States are the country that developed most of the fast food companies and is ahead of everyone else when it comes to processing food. You find a Burger King next to most McDonalds, directly opposite of the Taco Bell that is the neighbor to a Dunkin Donut.
We started the worldwide “convenience food” trend.
We can afford to throw 30 – 50 % of all food we purchase out. As we have a low tolerance against unshapely or somehow imperfect looking food, stores throw out lots of food as well.
Still we keep hearing complaints about the high costs for food. At the same time farmers are struggling, hardly able to make a living.
What is wrong here?
Is food really getting more expensive?
Looking at the statistics in 2013 US Americans spent around 10 % of their income on food. 1975 this number was around 23 %. Back in 1950 food costs added up to 44 % of the available income.
Salaries are rising faster than food costs.
The fact is: In relation to our income food costs are decreasing.
Food is the fuel that powers our engines. Food is our best “doctor”. Having to spend 10 % per month on it does not seem to be over the top. Do you agree?
The translation of the German word for food is “Lebensmittel”. Life capital. That pretty much sums it up.
We spend around 4 % of our available income on luxury foodstuffs, alcohol, and tobacco (I guess it is even more, but the survey company probably did not inquire about the use of other legal and illegal drugs.) That is more than a third of what we spend on “life capital”.
So the answer to the question is: No. Food is not too expensive.
Are complaints of farmers legit?
In 1970, farmers received 45 % of each dollar spent on food. Today, they receive 20 cents (or percent) of each dollar spent on food. That is half.
It seems that farmers complaining about decreasing margins have a point here.
In the last 100 years productivity has risen to an all-time high. While in 1900 a farmer was able to provide food for 4 people, today a farmer provides food for the impressive number of 140 people.
Pesticides and industrialization or two of the reasons for the increase.
Looking at these numbers it makes sense that food costs are decreasing when the cost of producing them goes down.
That leaves the question: Where does the money go? Why are so many farmers struggling? Why are some foods subject to price increases?
Who profits from food price rises?
If a baker raises the price for a roll we see only half of the truth. The price of the wheat needed for the production of a role ranges from 0.4 – 1 cent. Even if the price for wheat tripled, it would only result in a 1 cent increase in the price of the roll.
Labor- and energy costs play a way bigger role. More than ever in the history of mankind, the money goes to companies who process food. People cook less and less. They buy less and less natural food. More and more processed food lands in the shopping carts and on the dinner tables of people.
In many cases (like our breakfast cereals) the packing is more expensive than the food itself. I am not even mentioning the marketing costs of the big players in the market.
Is food too cheap?
The answer to that requires a bit more explanation.
When you are in the produce aisle of a supermarket looking at the prices they can seem pretty high. Right?
But how much of that costs ends up in the pocket of farmers. After the cost for production, packing, transportation, labor costs of the supermarket employees.
I bet you just did some math in your head, right? Ask yourself: Could you imagine producing food for that profit?
It seems that we do not feel appreciation anymore for the farmers who produce our food. It is not surprising that fewer and fewer people want to become farmers. That is a problem. Because when nobody is willing anymore to produce our food for starvation wages we will not find fresh produce in our supermarkets any longer.
I am not even mentioning the hard work farmers are providing – up to 100 hours per week. No vacation, no sick leave, no weekends off.
If you love bananas or broccoli, tomatoes, kale, berries – do not buy the super cheap offers. Even if you do not care the slightest bit about sustainability or social aspects but just your own health.
It is not surprising that food becomes more and more unhealthy. Spoilt with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and artificial (cheaper) ingredients. We force farmers to produce larger and larger amounts of food for fewer and fewer profit.
To rephrase the question: Is food too cheap to feed us in a healthy and sustainable way?
The answer is yes.
But who is really to blame for that? The farmer?
What can we as consumers do?
Affordable and inexpensive food is not bad per say. Not every expensive cauliflower is good.
What we need are realistic prices. Realistic prices are what a farmer needs to make a good living and the cost of sustainable food production.
To stabilize the price structure and availability of healthy produce long-term it is necessary to support the people we depend on for our survival. The “life capital” makers.
If you cannot grow and produce your own food you can find someone that you trust. Someone local you are confident about and trust to be able to produce healthy, natural food with as few dependencies as possible.
The food industry with their highly processed food is the wrong point of contact. The food industry does not produce food but only processes the raw material into mostly unhealthy food of low quality.
Shortcut to happiness
As often the shortest way to high-quality food and sustainability leads directly to the producer.
To achieve realistic pricing we have to aim to cut out as many in-betweeners (distributors, brokers, food processing companies) as possible. We have to keep the ways between the produce and us as short as possible and chose farmers who use sustainable methods.
It helps a lot to rediscover cooking and get more independent from the food industry. Who cooks fresh food will rediscover taste aside from health benefits. And isn´t a clear conscious the best pillow to rest on?
Why not think about the disconnect of us wanting workers paid and treated fair and buying 12 chicken nuggets for a dollar. If we buy a frozen “tv dinner” in a dollar store. After subtracting the profits of transportation, processing, wholesale cost, retail cost, cost for packing and marketing – what do we expect to be in it?
When we rediscover food and taste and appreciate the miraculousness of food we will understand:
Food (life capital) is priceless!
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