Jane Black, a food writer over at The Atlantic, discusses a recent run in with a farmer who was selling eggs at $8 per dozen.
My first instinct was that the egg guy was gouging people, like me, who have enthusiastically embraced efforts to build an alternative to our industrial food system. But it turns out that’s what it costs him to produce his eggs. The farm, Grazin’ Angus Acres, follows the gold standard of environmental practices: each morning, the chickens are fed organic grain, then moved to fresh pasture in a specially made chicken mobile. Owner Dan Gibson says the process is so labor-intensive that bringing down the price would be near impossible—and he’s not interested in trying. “At eight dollars a dozen, you pay 67 cents an egg,” he told me. “If your priorities are in the right place, that’s a bargain.”
The problem, as the $8/dozen eggs tell us is that, if a farmer does everything in their power to ensure caring, sustainable practices, the cost for production becomes enormous. But what do we get in return for this cost? Tom Philpott, over at Mother Jones, spells it out:
Meanwhile, at my local Walmart in Boone, North Carolina, a dozen eggs will set you back just $1.18. Those 10-cent eggs, of course, are produced in vast, fetid factories, sucking in huge amounts of environmentally ruinous corn and concentrating much more manure than can properly be absorbed into surrounding farmland.
What we get is farmland (that we never see) that is sustainable, a product (which is consumed almost immediately) that tastes marginally better, and the positive feelings of supporting a local farmer (who we barely know, if we know them at all) and not supporting factory- produced eggs (whose factories we also have never seen).
There’s quite a bit of abstraction in the benefit of purchasing those eggs.
As we sit in our restaurants and visit our farmers markets, the first rule of consumerism is as follows – when seeing two alike products whose only difference appears to be cost, people, collectively, will always migrate towards the cheaper one. People, when it comes to their food purchases, tend to stay within their cash-on-hand budget (meaning, most people don’t go into debt for grocery purchases). $8 per dozen eggs falls squarely into the luxury department. For people working to a budget, convincing them of the value of the $8/dozen eggs is asking too much. Value has to come with tangible benefits to the consumer.
I admit, the argument is a bit black and white here, although not much. While most supermarkets don’t sell $8/dozen eggs, they do sell anywhere between three to ten different types of eggs in their stores. Variations of cage-free, grain-fed, and hormone-free eggs all dot the shelves, each at a different cost point. And none of these types of eggs have diminished the demand for the $1.18 per dozen eggs.
Now, take this example for eggs, and expand upon it. Because this same dilemma of abstract benefit versus tangible value is being played out with milk, pork, beef, bread, tomatoes, soy beans, corn, and so-on and so-on. If we believe that good food (defined here as better tasting, less cruel to the animals, and more sustainable to the environment) is to be made available to all, rather than just the privileged, then we have to make the benefits of such purchases tangible to the consumers. More often than not, that means reducing their costs, or, more likely, remove the government subsidies and increase the financial penalties for unethical business practices that would increase the costs of cheap food. Because, more than any other lesson I have learned in the food industry, I have learned this: cheap food comes at a cost. It’s just that the cost is just another abstraction for too many of us.