Saturday, January 19, 2008

The True Cost

After reading an article this morning in the New York Times about the rising price of cooking oils due to the surge in interest in biofuels, I was left to meditate over lunch about how fortunate we as Americans (or individuals from any developed nation) really are. I am able to walk into the cafeteria on campus, fill up my plate as many times as I wish with a diverse array of foods, waste as much of that food as I please, and walk out leaving someone else to clean up after me. All this is free for me because my parents pay for my tuition, housing, and meal plan. But even for those students paying their own way, what they pay for a meal plan does not nearly reflect the true cost of that food.

It occurs to me that we do not know what food, or any of the goods we purchase, really costs. We would know it if we were paying for the initial growing of the crops (land, seed, equipment, fertilizers, labor), the damages to the earth due to growing crops (erosion, decreased soil fertility, reduced capacity of ecosystems such as wetlands, grasslands, estuaries, rain forests, etc. to perform essential tasks such as water purification, storm buffering, carbon sequestering, species habitat, resource for ingredients for pharmaceuticals, etc. etc.), the shipping of those crops, the processing of those crops (which opens an entirely new can of worms when it comes to chemicals and energy used), the second shipping of those now processed goods to your average grocery store (and often, goods are shipped much more than this), the salary of the clerk who checks you out at the counter, and the flimsy little plastic baggy that the food is handed to you in for easier transport to your vehicle.

I am a very frugal person. I like to save money and to keep my expenditures down to a bare minimum. But when I reflect upon the atrocious (true) cost of the cheap food we buy I wish with all my heart that the prices we pay reflected the actual cost of food. I guarantee that obesity would decline, rampant waste would decrease, subsistence farming would increase, sustainable growing practices and the cultivating of heirloom crops would see a resurgence, and who knows what other benefits we would reap (not necessarily material) all from paying the true cost of our food.

I am optimistic about some aspects of this crisis. The resurgence of local farmer's markets and locally produced goods is encouraging. The goods are more expensive (generally) than what you can get at the supermarche, but, my god, what a difference in the quality and the treatment of those goods. Having worked on various goat farms for only about six months I can tell you that the care invested in the final product is scrupulous. The future of the independent farmer or artisan rests in his or her ability to produce an outstanding product. These people are not fooling around. They aren't going to overcharge you for your food, but let me tell you that they aren't going to starve for your cheap goods.

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