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Sierra Magazine
Last Words

Do You Think Food Is Too Cheap?

Food is too cheap, at least for its producers. The economy of American farmers is constantly in a state of depression. Our few remaining farmers are getting old and their children, understandably, are leaving the farm. As the farmers go, our agriculture must become increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, toxic chemicals, overdoses of antibiotics, and migrant labor. The price that farmers get for their produce often barely covers the cost of production. It doesn't even pretend to pay the costs of farm maintenance and land conservation. When the food economy destroys its sources in nature and in human communities, food is far too expensive.

Wendell Berry, poet and author of The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

The problem is not how much food costs but who gets the money. We would greatly improve the health of our food supply by paying hard-working small farmers more. Food-reform efforts need to focus on changing the flow of money so we support small farmers and good agriculture instead of lining the pockets of greedy and destructive multinational corporations.

Martin Teitel, executive director, Council for Responsible Genetics

The single most important problem with food in this country is that it is vastly overproduced. The single most important nutritional problem is obesity. These issues are clearly related, and cheap food is a factor in both. Food companies compete fiercely for our food dollars and do everything they can to induce us to eat their products and to eat more food-regardless of the effects on waistlines and health.

Marion Nestle, chair, Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, New York University

Cheap food is important to consumers, especially to low-income consumers. In the United States, low food prices are associated with "high-yield, high-input" agriculture. High-yield agriculture means less land devoted to crops and pasture. This means less habitat destruction. Market economies have performed relatively well, and most food-industry sectors provide a broad array of products, including organically grown products.

Robert E. Evenson, director, Economic Growth Center, Yale University

Pesticides that accumulate in the bloodstreams of farmworkers' children are too cheap. Water from river-draining irrigation projects is too cheap. Synthetic fertilizers that choke estuaries with algal blooms are too cheap. Jet fuel burned to deliver farm-raised Norwegian salmon to power luncheons in Washington, D.C., is too cheap.

But food is not too cheap. We tax food providers on every dollar of wages they pay, but not on every pound of pesticides, gallon of irrigation water, or ton of packaging plastic they use. If we taxed pollution rather than paychecks, we would lower the prices of wholesome, low-impact, and typically labor-intensive foods, such as local organic produce. And we would raise the prices of high-impact, unhealthful, and labor-sparing foods such as mass-produced Idaho fries and Texas beef.

Alan Durning, executive director, Northwest Environment Watch and coauthor of Tax Shift

For the consumer, food costs are too high, especially for packaged or frozen foods. For the producer, food is too cheap. The expense of farming is putting many good farmers out of business. There is a better way. For the farmer it is marketing co-ops, developing niche markets for grain, meat, and vegetables. For the consumer there are farmers' markets and consumer co-ops. These alternatives benefit consumers and farmers, and protect the environment.

Robert Warrick, Nebraska farmer and chair, Sierra Club Agriculture Committee

In 100 cities around the world, food costs for lower-income families are 60 to 90 percent of family income, and that isn't cheap. Food security for all people requires a strengthening of local food systems to complement the national and global food systems that have brought food prices down for some people.

Jac Smit, president, Urban Agriculture Network


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