08 April 2015
Your pork is too expensive and other dilemmas of growing food in the age of plenty
We are growing pigs in Vermont mostly on a diet of by-products: whey, spent grains, and left over bread. We are doing a good thing. We are raising pigs as they have been raised traditionally. Our pigs are recyclers and piggy banks who help the farmer add value to by-products and surpluses. We are raising very tasty pork while participating actively in the local economy and farming in an ecologically sound manner. It all sounds good. Right?
So why do we have a difficult time competing with so-called “commodity pork” from other states that have developed industrial models of pork production?
On the supermarket shelves the price of commodity pork is so ridiculously low that it makes our product look like a fine wine in a gas station wine display: a product for the wealthy elite who can afford the luxury of a specialty item.
So we ask ourselves: is there something wrong with our production model that we must charge so much for our product, or is there something wrong with the competing product that they can charge so little for theirs?
There is plenty of analysis of the food systems in this country that argues that industrial agriculture is able to produce “cheap” food partly because of the structurally imbedded policies that affect agriculture and commerce: subsidies to fuel, fertilizer, and machinery; efforts to eliminate labor from the farming systems and pay labor as little as possible; the ability of corporate agriculture to externalize costs; economies of scale and other factors such as geography and climate.
There is another issue that is not discussed that often: it has to do with the quantity of food that the American public expects to consume. Cheap food is no longer cheap if you consume too much of it. And it is no longer cheap if it makes you sick. So we need to ask some questions about our food system that are not always asked:
What good is cheap food if people are going to consume too much of it?
What good is cheap food if consuming lots of it is making people sick?
Who is paying for the damage to the health of our population?
What good is cheap food if producing it is so costly to the environment?
Who is paying for the damage to our environment caused by a cheap food policy?
While it may seem counterintuitive, we suggest that buying our rightly priced pork is actually less expensive than buying cheap pork. Buy less of a really good thing and everyone benefits. Savor small quantities of good food and avoid gorging on bad food. We will all be healthier and happier.