Why Is Organic Food So…Cheap?

The title is of a good article that talks about food prices which you should definitely read (link in the title if I set things up right). Some of you have probably heard me rant about the prices for food in Canada and how they’re too low to possibly be supporting any of the farmers who grow the food. I say some of you, and not all, because I have a hard time expressing my true feelings on this topic and don’t want to get into fights with people on an issue that’s particularly emotional for me.

The local organic food movement is full of people who work very hard, for little pay, to produce good food for their communities because they believe that the food system needs to change. We try our best to price our produce to be as fair as possible to both our customers and ourselves, but if we were to actually price our labour time at a true living wage (which I’ve read is around $17/hour) or even minimum wage ($10.34/hour now I think), the food prices would have to be many more times what we charge. As it is, even with our ‘low pay’ pricing, all of us regularly hear comments about how our produce is too expensive or even unaffordable. One friend of mine says that we have to make sacrifices to be agents of social change, which is indeed noble, but doesn’t make the comments any less hurtful to hear. Certainly, I need to develop a thicker skin.

What is unaffordable? According to the latest StatCan numbers for 2008, households spent 10.4% of their income on food (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/091218/dq091218b-eng.htm). This is one of the lowest percentages in the world. Compare that with transportation and housing at 13.6% & 19.9% respectively. Of course, the high cost of housing is another issue to be lamented, especially as it drives up transportation spending since people end up living far from where they work.

How do we, as a ‘have’ country, justify being so cheap on such a life necessity as food? There are enough articles around these days about the rise in North American obesity rates and how the average diet is quite unhealthy, high in processed foods, and how few people know how to prepare meals from raw ingredients anymore. Some of the consequences for us as a society is higher health care costs, and arguably, kids who don’t reach their intellectual potential due to malnutrition or the side effects of the chemicals used to grow non-organic produce. Has there ever been a time with so many kids with attention disorders, food allergies, asthma, obesity, diabetes, etc.? Is it really a better bargain to spend less than $2 on a loaf of white bread made from highly processed ingredients than to pay $6 for a loaf made from locally grown, organic whole wheat or other grain, from an artisanal bakery? And of course, we’re not just cheap with food…we’re also cheap with clothing and other manufactured goods. None of these cheap products do us any good. I know it’s hard to pass up a bargain, but when the pleasure at finding a bargain becomes an expectation that everything should be cheaper, then we are entirely complicit in the exploitation of workers everywhere, all for inferior products. Everyone loses.

Imagine a world where everyone were fairly paid for the work that they do and the products that resulted were of good quality and didn’t destroy the world around them in their manufacture. Where honoured professions were ones that nurtured our health and minds, such as farmers, teachers, artists…maybe I’m not so far from being a hippy as I’ve thought ;P

This is the story of my journey into sustainable agriculture. From the streets of downtown Toronto, to the farm land of southern Ontario, I hope to discover the techniques and practices that work for me in both mind and heart.

2 thoughts on “Why Is Organic Food So…Cheap?”

  1. Hi Brenda, its been a while since we've connected. I have heard about your endeavours through Doret and Brian. I just wanted to send a quick note to say thanks for sharing your thoughts and how much I respect what you're doing.

    Sandra and I are still in Taiwan and the "organic movement" is actually quite strong here (perhaps due to the agriculture friendly environment and lower cost of labour / living). From a consumer perspective it is quite accessible (both in selection, volume and relatively price differential). We live in a typical Taipei neighbourhood and have four or five different stores where we can get organic produce, much of it delivered daily from the farm. We also have an organic association where the label on the produce has a picture of the farmer so you actually see the person who is growing your food!

    Ray Chow

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