Joseph and the Amazingly Expensive Commodity Crops

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(x-posted at Lilith)

Today, I disagreed with Michael Pollan. (I know – I’m a little bit scared too.) According to an article in today’s NY Times, my favorite foodie believes that the rising price of commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans is a good thing. The Times reports:

“[Pollan] 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.”

In other words, if the price of a Big Mac goes up high enough, then people will switch to purchasing vegetables at the farmers’ market. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be member of Pollan’s shul – I buy his argument that paying more for “good” food like free range eggs or organic milk is worthwhile, and that cheap foods are falsely cheap (though perhaps not for long).

But I think Pollan’s assertion that: A (foods made with commodity crops) + B (higher prices on those crops) = C (consumers purchasing more fruits and veggies from small farms) doesn’t necessarily hold up for the majority of the country’s eaters.

It makes great sense for me – a religious farmers’ market shopper and CSA member who has access to local products more or less whenever I want them – to eschew the Mickey D’s and feel really good about buying local . But what about the many moms and dads who don’t have access to healthier alternatives? The Times reports:

“Someone on the margin who says ‘I’m struggling’ would say rising food costs are in no way a positive,” said Ephraim Leibtag of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Those folks who study Torah (or have ever seen the hit musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) know the following story: After interpreting Pharoah’s dream, Joseph convinces Pharoah to stockpile grain for seven years. When famine hits the region seven years later, Egypt is the only country with adequate food reserves.

Pollan’s assertions that higher priced commodity crops could lead to a significant change in consumer behavior assume that we (America) have already done adequate “stockpiling” work. But we have not. Farmers’ markets and CSAs – let alone fruits and veggies – do not yet reach into many of country’s poorest cities and rural areas. And according to a CNN report, “global food reserves [are] at their lowest in a quarter century,” which means bad weather this summer could send prices soaring even higher.

The Egypt in Joseph’s day may have had an easy transition into 7 years of famine (the food situation in contemporary Egypt stands in stark contrast). But America’s transition into “famine years” won’t be so simple. With this in mind, I just don’t think it’s fair or particularly effective to say to lower and middle-class people people, “Okay, now your cheap food is expensive – have you thought about buying [also expensive] local food?”

So, while Pollan might be correct that the rising price of commodity crops might encourage some people to make the switch to local, grass fed, non-commodity foods, as long as the majority of consumers’ “fork votes” are going towards cheap food, “the intellectual musings of the food elite,” as The Times states, “might be trampled in the stampede to the value menu.”

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8 Responses to “Joseph and the Amazingly Expensive Commodity Crops”

  1. Debs Says:

    If bad food has been cheap for so long due to subsidies, then I’d like to see subsidies for good quality food instead. Cut out the subsidies for corn, and replace them with subsidies for small, organic farms to produce vegetables, fruits, meat and dairy.

    I do think sparking national dialogue about why (bad) food is so cheap is a pretty good idea, but I do agree that Pollan’s argument is here is a bit over-simplistic.

    Food Is Love

  2. lux Says:

    You’re completely right. If Mickey D’s gets more expensive, people may well start eating there less often, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be going to the farmer’s market to fill in the gaps. More likely, they’ll be cutting back elsewhere, hitting the sale racks at the supermarket harder, or filing for food stamps.

  3. shev Says:

    How many of you remember someone saying “I’ll give up cigarettes when they cost $1.50″, and the cigarettes hit $1.60 and guess what? they keep on smoking…

    If fast food and soda get more expensive, so will everything else, and it will still be the cheapest thing around. People are not going to say “My word! An expensive Coke! I must stop!” – more likely “Whoa this is expensive! Oh well…” and dig deeper for more coins. Imho. (Am I disagreeing with Rav P? If so, that feels kind of weird…)

  4. aliza Says:

    Great post, Leah- this is a topic that has come up in my classes recently, but I hadn’t seen the NYtimes article until I saw your post. I’m working on some more commentary about it over on usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com.

  5. Leah Koenig Says:

    It’s funny – I was thinking to myself today that I really hadn’t noticed the rise in prices. I figured it’s because I shop mostly at the farmers’ market, through my CSA and at the member-owned Park Slope Food Coop (where everything costs less b/c there isn’t as much overhead as a supermarket) http://parkslopefoodcoop.org. But then tonight, in the bread aisle at the coop, I noticed a little sign that said, “because grain prices continue to go up, XX bread company has raised it’s prices.”

    - You’re right Debs – the world would be a better place if small, organic family farmers received subsidies for their work. It feels like we’re on the right track to get there, but we have a long way to go.

    - Right lux, the first part of the equation is correct, but unfortunately there’s a disconnect between not buying Mc Donalds and buying more kale.

    - It’s true Shev – and unlike cigarettes, food isn’t something you can give up, even if you want to!

    - Thanks Aliza, I’m curious to read your thoughts on this subject too.

  6. maria Says:

    i agree with what shev said, and i think it’s more like when gas prices reached $2.00 a gallon. everyone thought it was totally unacceptable, but we kept buying gas. even now it’s hard for people to cut back just a little. not to mention that the airlines, bus lines, factories, everyone uses expensive petroleum products. i think you could probably say the same for commodity foods.

  7. Ketzirah Carly Says:

    *gasp* okay. I’ve recovered.

    You’re dead on. I think Pollan might have a bit of coastal myopia and not be thinking about how the rest of the country really lives.

    people won’t stop eating at Mickey D’s if it gets more expensive. They’ll complain about the prices, but if that is the staple of their diet they’ll keep eating there.

  8. Doug L. Says:

    As one who is less green in my eating I can tell you that rising prices will do nothing to change what I eat (although my sense of logic is pushing me to try to buy more things locally etc.). If fast food becomes more expensive people will either eat more “ramen” noodles or go more into debt. The problem still comes down to the fact that most people know the price for things but not the value. I also think fast food and moderatewly priced retaurants will cut margins to keep prices stable and keep thier market share until the commodities prices stabilize.

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