The true cost of food shouldn’t be measured in dollars and cents.
Industrial agriculture produces food that’s cheap because they cut corners. That means treating animals—and workers—cruelly. It means producing an inferior product, frankly. And they can do it because they operate on a massive scale and are subsidized by the government.
Only rich people can afford to eat locally grown, organic food. Have you heard that one before? I have, and it’s sure to come up during the “Can Maine Feed Itself?” keynote discussion taking place at next month’s Maine Fare festival in the midcoast.
A whole book could be written (and has been) about the reasons factory farms and agribusinesses can produce food that costs so little. However, the simple answer, as Coleman pointed out, includes physical scale, illegal immigrant laborers, polluting farm practices and government subsidies. (Photo: Photos by Derek Davis/ Portland Press Herald)
According to well-known organic Maine farmer and author Eliot Coleman, who farms year-round in unheated greenhouses and will participate in the panel, the No. 1 barrier preventing more Mainers from eating food grown and raised locally is the competition from cheap eats trucked in from California.
A whole book could be written (and has been) about the reasons factory farms and agribusinesses can produce food that costs so little. However, the simple answer, as Coleman pointed out, includes physical scale, illegal immigrant laborers, polluting farm practices and government subsidies.
At the same time, the idea that only the well-off can eat fresh, locally grown eats ignores the obvious and inexpensive solution of growing your own garden. You can’t get any more local than food grown steps from your kitchen. And with seeds that sell for pennies apiece and with compost an essentially free fertilizer that anyone can make from table scraps and dried leaves, it becomes clear that price alone is not the true issue.
I’d argue that the real barrier is psychological. Part of this can be traced to the American obsession with animal protein.
Meat, dairy and eggs are all expensive ways to include protein in our diets, and these ubiquitous staples of our national cuisine can be produced cheaply (think a dozen eggs for $1.69 at the grocery stores versus $4.50 at the farmers’ markets) only when the farms cut costs. That can lead to mistreating the animals, the workers or the environment. The price at the checkout may be low, but we pay the full cost eventually in food poisoning outbreaks, slaughterhouse workers with post-traumatic stress disorder and polluted rivers.