Saturday, April 5, 2008

Is good food frugal?

From the NY Times, an article about whether the high cost of fossil fuels, and the impact it has on food prices, will make organic and local more cost-competitive.

Every since I discovered Tightwad Gazette in the '90s, I've been aware of a certain tension between frugality and sustainability. What I mean is, if Wal-Mart is where the cheapest food is, wouldn't an interest in frugality cause one to shop there no matter what it's impact on the enviroment (or on labor relations, or on local businesses)? Likewise, if white pasta and store-brand cheese is cheaper, shouldn't we be eating more of that, despite its (respectively) negative nutrititional value and the cheapening of taste and the impact on artisanal cheese? Isn't making the more expensive choice anti-frugal? To an extent, that's the argument that DW makes with me.

But as Michael Pollan makes abundantly clear, part of the reason that such choices are cheaper (along with factory farmed meat, milk and eggs) is because in many ways the costs are undercounted ("externalized" in the parlance) or subsidized by us, the taxpayer. If a hog factory farmer gets a break from pollution laws in order to keep the price of bacon cheap, I pay for that financially and otherwise even though I have no use for the product.

The way I have approached this is via a Jewish values approach: I am convinced that part of the reason the kosher laws were invented was to provide a more humane existence for the animals, and if that is not the case then we have to call the kashrut of the "product" into question, whether the meat has (Orthodox) kosher certification or not. Likewise, Arthur Waskow and others have promulgated the idea of eco-kashrut, the taking into account of health and environmental costs into deciding what is permissible to eat (or use - styrofoam, for instance, would fall under this rubric). I've been moving steadily in the direction of these approaches over the last several years.

There are only two ways more "boutique" food choices are going to become more cost competitive: first, if the elaborate system of incentives and subsidies that keep industrial food production cheaper is overthrown - and looking at the continuing control Big Ag has had on the Farm Bill shows that that's not going to happen too soon - or second, if enough people pay the premium that will allow the price of the better choice to come down enough that there's no longer such a premium. But now I guess there is a third option - if the price of fuel causes the industrial agricultural product to be not quite so much cheaper after all.

Look, the basis of the frugality/sustainability nexus is fairly easy to articulate: buy seasonal, buy local, buy products with as little packaging as possible. Whether we pursue organic or not, by taking these few simple steps, we will opt out of the "Frankenfood" mentality, to great benefit to our health and the health of the planet, and to our wallets.

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