Subsidies and Inequities

The debate about organic, sustainable agriculture versus conventional food production methods often ends up revolving around price, especially end prices for consumers. Campaigns urging people to buy organic sometimes gloss over the increased price of organic products, especially those that remain true to the spirit of organic agriculture, in contrast with industrial organics, which are often relatively cheap in the store. Or campaigners admit that there’s still a price differential, but suggest that increased demand will bring prices down, or that people should be willing to pay more because it’s better, and for a cause, even though many people cannot afford to spend more on food[1. Some foodies particularly love throwing out statistics about the percentage of income spent on food, as though people should be ashamed of their small food budgets when they’re also struggling with high housing costs, health care, and other issues.].

Realities of the pricing debate are complex. Some studies on organic agriculture suggest that it may actually be less expensive, because farmers aren’t using pricey agricultural chemicals and genetically engineered seeds. Others indicate a higher cost of production, depending on the crop, especially if farmers also want to use ethical labour in the fields and want to engage in activities like safely rotating crops to protect the soil. The costs of production aren’t reflected in the shelves of the grocery store at all, though, and this is where some food campaigners mess up; they focus on grocery store pricing and hammering people who don’t buy organic, and not actual costs of production.

Conventional agriculture may or may not be cheaper on the surface to produce, depending on the crop and the farming technique, depending on climate and labour conditions and other factors. But conventional agriculture is definitely cost-effective for the farmer, particularly in the case of crops like corn, soy, wheat, and rice. Because those crops come with very heavy agricultural subsidies; farmers make a lot on their crops regardless of market price. These subsidies keep store prices cheaper, which is sometimes touted as a social benefit, but it means that they’re artificially low while the prices for fruits and vegetables appear high, and organic food also tends to be more expensive because it doesn’t benefit from those subsidies.

80% of available farm subsidies go to conventional agriculture. Very little support is provided to people who want to start organic farms or transition their farms. For those who want certification, the process is expensive, finicky, and time-consuming. In other words, the government throws the bulk of its support behind conventional methods of agriculture production, leaving other farmers out in the cold. The problem with food pricing inequalities lies in no small part with the distribution of subsidies.

Some circles of the food movement are tackling subsidies and fighting for more equality in their distribution, as well as a more functional subsidy programme. Some are focusing specifically on decreasing the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables to make them affordable, even as they are pushing to make these products more readily available in stores, particularly in areas where stores don’t really stock produce. They’re connecting the dots and recognising that consumer habits aren’t based on some sort of dislike of fruits and vegetables, or antipathy for organic food, but availability and affordability. If you want people to eat more fresh produce, and you want people to turn away from conventional agriculture, you have to make that possible.

Unfortunately, those campaigners of reason sometimes seem like they are drowned out by self-righteous foodies lecturing people on how they should buy organic because it’s good for the planet, how they should support organic agriculture because it’s the right thing to do, how they have an obligation to spend more on food, how it may seem more expensive but it costs the environment less[2. Which is absolutely true, but unfortunately not everyone is in a position to do something about externalities.]. Which is…not very helpful. Critical changes are needed in the agriculture and food system, but leaning on people with the least power to do anything about it is not the way to accomplish those changes. And pressuring people over their eating and buying habits is likely to lead to reflexive backlash, where they begin to build up negative associations around food and availability because they’re tired of being lectured about what they do and do not buy.

Disorganisation is a common feature of many social movements, and the food movement is no exception. There’s a lack of focus in terms of priorities and goals in some groups, and a lack of coordination when it comes to messaging. One of the key targets for the movement should be the subsidy system, because it’s broken, because it creates strange pricing dynamics in the stores, because it disadvantages many farmers who might want to transition to new modes of production, or might be interested in entering the farming industry, but can’t because of the system that places conventional agriculture at the top, at the head of the line for all the subsidies and support.

Foodies get angry that people perceive their movement as elitist and snobby, but many of them appear reluctant to clean house and address the, yes, elitism in the movement. There’s a reason people are angry at the food movement, and it’s not because they don’t care about food, or because they don’t think there are serious problems with food access and nutrition in the United States. It’s because shaming is not really a great tactic for creating social change and getting people involved with social issues, and for many outsiders looking in and interacting with only part of the messaging in the movement, shaming is what the food movement seems to specialise in.

Reformers who want to see changes in the food system are often talking amongst each other—discussions about food subsidies, for example, tend to happen in spaces where people are already aware of the issue, instead of being brought to the community at large for more widespread attention. Rather than getting angry at people for lack of knowledge, the food movement needs to step up its game when it comes to disseminating information and getting people involved.