Saturday, September 12, 2015

Cheap Food--Friend or Foe?

At the beginning of the semester, I was enrolled in both an organic gardening class through the Horticulture Department as well as international trade and development course for my Masters in Applied Economics here at Virginia Tech. The first few weeks were super exciting and there was a lot of discussion and overlap on how far food and agriculture has come in both classes, but with two very different contexts.

Image result for international agriculture and. us agricultureIn the international trade and development course, the focus was on how countries develop differently and what the key factors are that lead to some countries like the US and most in the European Union to have become developed, versus countries that remain developing like India and many African and Asian countries. These key factors included political climates, education, and of course agriculture, among many others. As you look into the literature surrounding development, you'll find that developing agriculture and increasing access to food, and hence reducing hunger, is absolutely key to moving a country forward. The professor of this course continues to do research and is constantly traveling abroad and even spent many years in the Peace Corps, developing agriculture in impoverished countries. He spent most of the class referring back to his personal experiences, and needless to say, I left the class pretty inspired by the role agriculture plays in the global context and all we still have left to do to empower people out of poverty and into thriving economies.

The next day, I had my organic gardening class. The class was structured around the history of agriculture, mostly in the United States, from subsistence gardening and farming throughout the 17th, 18th, and most of the 19th century, to consolidation in the late 19th and 20th century to agricultural technology development, urban migration, and the current state of agriculture-- ie less farms, more food, and the average American being 2-3 generations off the farm, and thus fairly disconnected from their food origins.

All of this was a good reminder of the changes agriculture, specifically in the United States has undergone, but there was one comment the instructor made that made me pause. He referenced to the fact that as farming technologies have been developed and agriculture in the United States has become more efficient, our food has become cheap. At this point I was thinking "Yes! American farmers provide the safest, most affordable and most abundant food in the world!" But he followed that with "why would we want food, an essential component to our being to be 'cheap'. Of all things we consume, the one thing we actually put into our bodies shouldn't be 'cheap.'" I hadn't really thought of the low food prices we as US consumers pay in this way before. In a lot of ways, he was right, usually we don't associate cheap with a positive connotation, and of course, I want to put the best quality product on my plate. But this comment also bothered me, as it discredits the main point of economic development and the hard work of American farmers.

When we go back to the literature, one of the main goals of developing countries is to make food "cheaper" and more affordable so less people go hungry, more energy can be spent on education and increasing other industries, and economies thus flourish. So in essence, the United States mastered this and because of all the advancements and "cheap" food, we are the most well off country and the super power we are today.

However, I do recognize that this "cheap" food has come at a price and there is a lot of work and improvement to be made within US agriculture to make it more sustainable and responsible. We do see the trend towards what some consumers perceive as better quality food in the form of organic, non-GMO, local, and other value added food products. In essence, this is our way of pushing back against "cheap" food, but the whole reason we can afford to pay the premium for this food lifestyle is because of the increased incomes and better economies we have, which of course gets linked back to our agriculture development from the beginning. So what I'm getting at here is that everything comes full circle and we shouldn't bash the current food system we have, because it leaves room for everyone to make food choices that best fit their income and lifestyle.

Some may then say that everyone should have access to the best quality food, that it is a basic human right. And I agree. There is still a lot of work to do in bringing fresh produce and vegetables and healthier choices into food deserts, but we also have to recognize that this comes at a cost not everyone can afford--at least not at this very moment. However, I believe that US farmers--big, small, old, young, organic, and conventional--will make this happen so that everyone has access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food that will never have a negative connotation of being "cheap."