ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Do Higher Prices Mean Better Food Choices?

Well, now that  I'm back in the saddle and already forgetting what little Japanese I learned, I'm catching up with the news. (And by the way, I'll be posting more on the Japan trip soon...)

Right now, in the food world, the big issue is food prices -- and my sense is it's gonna be for a long time. I noted previously that bread bakers organized a march in DC, and now we have independent truckers protesting higher diesel prices. But these are feint social  stirrings compared to what might happen with continued fuel and food inflation.

And this is not necessarily the impetus that will drive people to make better food choices, as Kim Severenson's recent article in the Times suggested.

I always thought the assertion that people "should pay more for food" was a non-starter with consumers. Although I agree with the underlying argument - that cheap food production externalizes costs in pollution, pesticide use, even obesity - it is not an easy one for people to grasp. What they hear is that they should pay more for food. People don't want to pay more for food, especially when they are having trouble paying the mortgage. But they will, in some cases, pay more for products they perceive as higher value.

Example: consider the $40-plus billion spent on dieting products (twice as large as the organic food industry). People are spending that money because they perceive they are getting value - in this case, products that will make them thin. What is the value people get by making sustainable food choices? Until now the most compelling argument, surveys show, is that they are making a "healthier" choice. That has resonated most with the public and been the major factor behind the growth of this industry.

Unlike my friend Michael Pollan in the Times article, I have doubts about whether the current rise in commodity food prices will cause a shift to sustainable alternatives. The argument presupposes that price is the main factor keeping people away from better food choices. I think the bigger factor is education and availability. You will not buy the product if you don't perceive it as better. Instead, you'll stick with your current brand choice, even if the price goes up. Maybe you'll just buy less of it.

Perhaps I sound a little cynical, but this movement will not expand if it's predicated on the idea that you should pay more for food. You should buy better food, even if, in some cases, it's more expensive. Why? it's a better value (and that value can be defined in many ways). This post on the Jew and the Carrot blog had a similar perspective.

And not to throw more cold water on the argument, but it should be noted that rising commodity prices undermine one of the main arguments for producers going organic or pursuing more sustainable solutions. (I wrote about that in my column here). Already, a handful of organic dairies are switching back to conventional production because the economics are now better. And fewer farmers are converting to organic -- meaning more organics will come from overseas.