Food prices and ‘level playing fields’
"Higher food prices level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels," Pollan told The New York Times. Not likely so, I argued.
I should have emphasized more how much these two icons have done to advance sustainable agriculture in the United States — and to advance my own education. (I’ve written about Pollan here and here; and Waters here, here, here, and here.)
And when I used the example of improving school lunches as the kind of thing that Waters and Pollan should be advocating for, I should have noted that Waters is a long-time champion of transforming school lunches. In fact, I quoted Ann Cooper, the "renegade lunch lady" on mission to bring real food into school cafeterias, without noting that Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation pays part of Cooper’s salary.
So I criticize Waters and Pollan from a position of great respect. However, I still find their notion that higher industrial-food prices will automatically boost the fortunes of sustainable agriculture quite wrong. Here’s why.
In my Victual Reality piece, I argued that higher prices for food commodities could actually bolster fast-food giants, which …
… can likely absorb higher input prices and still churn out crap — and rake in profits. If that’s true, prices at the drive-thru won’t rise quite as steeply as those in the supermarket line, giving people yet more incentive to abandon their home kitchens and flock to the Golden Arches.
As if on cue, a Wall Street Journal interview with Burger King CEO John Chidsey unearths this choice nugget:
If you look in the fast-food hamburger space, it is unfortunate for the greater economy as a whole, but we benefit from the pressure people feel from a disposable-income standpoint. People who cannot afford to go to Applebee’s, cannot afford to go to Chili’s, we are the beneficiaries of that squeeze. It’s very hard for me to imagine that the economy could ever get so bad that somebody could not afford to go buy a Double Cheeseburger from McDonald’s or a Whopper Jr. from us for $1. If you go to the grocery store, I really challenge you to find something for under $1.
Burger King, you might remember, is the firm whose penny-pinching intrangisence is forcing poverty wages on thousands of Florida tomato pickers. I guess driving a hard bargain with suppliers (i.e., farmers) is profitable in more ways than one.
Then I came across this gem, from FoodProductionDaily.com:
As with other animal produce, egg prices have increased in the past year as a result of higher costs for grain. This presents food formulators with a quandary. Eggs are important to provide structure and texture in a number of food categories — yet the higher costs are putting pressure on their margins. While food manufacturers can pass on some of the costs, this is not possible for all. Some firms are taking a long hard look at formulations, to see whether they can use cheaper, alternative ingredients to achieve the same results.
"Cheaper, alternative ingredients," eh? Like what? Seems that a company bearing the ominous name of "Gum Technologies" has come out with a weird goop consisting of carrageenan and locust bean gum designed to replace eggs in industrial baked goods. In fact, the company has developed no fewer than "three blends which it says can mean a reduction or elimination of eggs without compromising the sensory properties of the finished product."
Never mind that carrageenan, an industrially processed seaweed derivative, has been pretty definitively linked to colon cancer. For food manufacturers, here’s the important bit: the company claims its product can "help cut production costs and increase your profit margin."
For me, the bottom line is this: industrial food purveyors, whether they be processors like Kraft or fast-food giants like Burger King, will use any means necessary to absorb higher input costs and preserve their share of the U.S. market.
Higher commodity prices, alone, won’t bring sustainably grown, healthy food to the masses.