Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy

Some Good News on Food Prices

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...

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