From Tom Philpott on Mother Jones:
“Over on the Atlantic site, the food politics writer Jane Black has a thoughtful post on farmers market sticker shock in brownstone Brooklyn.
Confronted at her neigborhood market by the spectacle of $8/dozen eggs—which had sold out, no less—Black frets that “that the ‘good-food-costs-more’ argument is being taken to an extreme that puts at risk the goal of a mass food-reform movement, which is to make good food available to the greatest number of people possible.”
Black goes on to do a bit of analysis on the $8/dozen farmer’s production model and reckons that he probably isn’t just sticking it to Brooklyn yuppies: “It turns out that’s what it costs him to produce his eggs,” because he uses a labor-intensive pasture-based system and feeds his birds organic corn, which is much more expensive than conventional.
So we have a genuine quandary here: A farmer who’s just scraping by while doing the right thing by his land and his birds, charging a price that makes the whole concept of alternative food systems seem hopelessly elitist.
Meanwhile, at my local Walmart in Boone, North Carolina, a dozen eggs will set you back just $1.18. Those 10-cent eggs, of course, are produced in vast, fetid factories, sucking in huge amounts of environmentally ruinous corn and concentrating much more manure than can properly be absorbed into surrounding farmland.
What’s the answer to the dilemma described by Black? Can we eat affordably without destroying the ecological means of production? I doubt it; that is, not as long as our regulatory agencies sit idly while gigantic companies turn abuse—of labor, the environment, and animals—into a business model. How much of a hidden subsidy does big agribusiness reap from our lax regulatory regime, some of which it pockets in profit and some of which it passes on to consumers in the form of stuff like 10-cent eggs and $2-a-pound pork chops?
Ralph Loglisci of the Center for a Livable Future pointed me to a report (PDF), part of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, that examines that precise question with regard to another product that’s cheap in the supermarket and expensive at the farmer’s market: pork.
Coauthored by Daryll Ray—a University of Tennessee ag economist whose work I revere—the report finds that under current regulations, producing hogs in vast factories is significantly cheaper than raising them on pasture. But if you made the giant hog factories deal properly with the vast amount of toxic waste they produce, the price difference reverses. In other words, a Walmart value-pack of pork chops would cost significantly more per pound than the pasture-raised ones that give you sticker shock at the farmers market….”
Read it all on Mother Jones.