In writing my two previous articles (part 1, part 2) on the economics of sustainability, I have come across a concept I have found quite intriguing, the “sustainable kitchen.” What drew me to this concept is the notion that sustainability would be achievable if we were to consume locally, organically produced food. The idea is the production of organically produced foods involves protecting natural resources and conserving biodiversity, and is therefore sustainable. Moreover, by consuming only locally produced foods, we not only incentivize local producers to produce, but we also reduce the need for preservatives. While the sustainable kitchen concept has it merits, is it economically viable?
Mass producers of fruits and vegetables tend to use synthetic chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth, insecticides for pest control and herbicides for weed control. Along the same line, mass meat producers largely use hormones to spur growth and antibiotics to prevent disease in livestock. By contrast, OPF producers fertilize the soil with manure and/or compost, control pests by introducing beneficial insects and birds, along with controlling weeds by means of crop rotation, hand-weeding and/or mulching. Likewise, producers of organically produced meats and meat products tend to use measures such as rotational and free range feeding and less dense living spaces.
Sure, not all so-called organic farming is sustainable. Increase in the demand for organically grown foods has spurred on the establishment of large operations, which precludes consumption of locally grown foods (well, unless you happen to reside close to one or more of such operations). Mass produced foods, regardless of whether they are organically or petrochemically grown, also produce toxic bi-products. Therefore, we should be certain to clearly define sustainable organic food production. Sustainable organic farming is an ecological approach that attempts, as much as possible, to replace the carbon, nitrogen, water, and micronutrients that are depleted from the soil by means of renewable resources. Furthermore, sustainable organic growing is labor-intensive. Petrochemical and organic mass production agriculture was developed to replace labor with machinery. In areas of the world where the cost of labor is higher than the cost of machinery, such as the United States, it is more economical to shift away from labor intensive to machine intensive (capital intensive) production.
In the eyes of the typical consumer, the biggest differences between organic and conventional food is the price tag. At the grocery store, we will usually notice organically grown foods are much pricier than petrochemically grown foods. However, when we dig deeper we come to realize that the true cost of food is not necessarily the listed price. The price tag we see at the grocery store does not include the externalities incurred due to unsustainable food production. Externalities, as the term suggests, are costs external to production and consumption. They are costs usually not incurred by private producers rather they are incurred by consumers. Externalities can be direct such as the additional amount levied on our water bills to cover the cost of detoxifying our drinking water of agricultural chemical run-off and residue.
In many cases externalities are not as direct. Soil, air and water pollution for example, do not directly affect our bank accounts. Externalities tend to be the type of costs that cannot be quantified. The stench of an Iowan pig farm cannot be readily remedied. And, how much do you charge the mass producing pig farmer for blasting your nostrils? What do we charge the neighboring farmer who uses Monsanto seeds for cross-pollination, and therefore polluting our crops? What is the price associated with the effects of bovine waste run off entering our rivers from mass produced beef? Well, eventually, we move out of Iowa or get use to the stink. Monsanto will send their lawyers after us for illegally obtaining their patented, mutated, Frankenstein, seeds—and if we happen to live in the Third World, the price of losing the lawsuit would probably mean losing our land (suck it, Bono). And, if or when a crisis point is reached we will end up diverting our tax dollars from other uses to clean up the mass produced bovine sewage in our rivers.
However, these are not expenditures or the effects we readily see as consumers. These are long term effects and most humans tend to concentrate on the immediate, the direct and the near term. We can conceptualize what the long-run will look like, but as John M. Keynes said “[i]n the long-run we are all dead.” What I am getting at here is that the price the consumer sees at the grocery store is the price that affects behavior. This is especially evident among low wage earners, given they are not as much concerned about bio-loads and petrochemical toxicity when having to make choices about feeding themselves and their families on a very constrained budget. Expending the extra money to purchase locally and organically produced foods would mean less disposable income available for other essentials like housing, clothing and transportation.
What about wage earners in higher brackets? Why don’t they embrace the sustainable kitchen? Is it ignorance? Perhaps it is, in a very small way. Instead, it is more likely related to demand and supply. By and large, humanity has moved toward global mass food production and has seen increased variety coupled with lower costs to the individual consumer. Going back to my first article, people trade because, among other things, they want to consume a variety of goods and services. That variety often extends beyond the locality in which consumers reside. A Minnesotan would be hard pressed to find a reasonably priced, locally produced, bunch of romaine lettuce in the middle of January. It is the demand for out of area and out of season goods that signal suppliers to produce such goods. And, the larger the aggregate demand for such goods the higher the likelihood that mass production approaches will be employed to meet demand. Therefore, for the sustainable kitchen concept to take off we need a cultural change as economics, especially in this point in time, will do very little to affect consumption.
We are already seeing a cultural shift, albeit glacial, in consumption patterns. The marketing gurus working for the organic food industry have been doing a very good job of convincing members of the public that organically grown foods are more flavorful and have higher nutritional value. Whether or not this is actually true, especially since the evidence is mixed, is immaterial. What matters regardless of how it happens is, that we see a decline in unsustainable production techniques. Actually, we have seen increasing demand for organically grown foods in spite of the large price tag. Consumers, especially among the higher wage earners, see organically grown goods to be superior. So, the food they consume may be organically grown but not necessarily locally grown. But the question remains, is the organically produced food being consumed sustainably produced? Furthermore, is there a way to design sustainable, organic production so that organically produced goods can become affordable to low wage earners?
Article by: Andre H. Baksh, PhD.
i If you are interested in exploring sustainable kitchen recipes, I recommend The Sustainable Kitchen: Passionate Cooking Inspired by Farms, Forests and Oceans by Stu Stein and Judith Dern.
ii If you are seeking to participate in producing for the sustainable kitchen, take a look at Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres by Pam Dawling.
iii You need a wake-up call? Not at all convinced petrochemically based food production is all that harmful? You can start by taking a look at the other side of the argument in Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming can Heal our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep us Safe by Maria Rodale and Eric Scholsser.