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The True Cost of Goods - How Much Does Your Food Really Cost?

By Kate Dobrowski, Edith Pucci Couchman Bill Wardwell & NOFA-NH’s Education Committee Members

Eten, hrana, 餐饮, מזון, kos, mea ʻai, comida, jedzenie, cibo, bia, gıda,खाना, cuntada - these are just a few words used for "food”. It’s a basic requirement of human survival and was gathered and eaten in its wildest forms. Food shaped and sustained civilization, and farming became an occupation when humans realized they could produce much more food through cultivation and thus support communities. Agrarian societies formed and led to the introduction of tools and mechanization, culminating in the industrialized farming model we are familiar with today. Industrialized farming now supplies huge grocery conglomerates and factory processors. It is a global mega-business.

Due to recent events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the cost of food and goods has recently soared to an all-time high, with toilet paper and eggs as examples of supply chain disruptions, price gouging, and market instability.

Eggs and toilet paper shortages allow us to learn more about the true cost of goods. What are those eggs worth, and how valuable are they to you as the consumer? Will prices continue to rise? Whose fault is it for rising prices? What can we do to make sure we have food for our families? Will farmers be paid fairly for the food they produce? This series aims to answer these and other questions about the cost of the food we eat.

As you may have guessed, the true cost is a complicated subject. NOFA-NH is exploring the “True Cost of Food” over the next 10 months in a column on their website’s homepage and leading up to a workshop at the next NOFA-NH Winter Conference in February 2024.  

Do farmers control the cost of food?

Short answer: No! Large-scale, industrialized factory farms are controlled by the corporations that own them. Those corporations have a tremendous ability to influence grocery prices at will. Many large farms, processors, and grocery stores are vertically integrated, have concentrated control over available food, and are often owned by multinational interests. Large industrial farms must rely on environmentally degrading growing practices to meet those interests to achieve business goals (i.e., influence the price on the shelf). Using a mining and extraction model, factory farms depend on environmentally damaging fossil fuels, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, mechanization, and as few human workers as possible! The farmworkers they do have are often paid as little as possible, even when exposed to dangerous and demeaning conditions. Large-scale corporate farms, with their relentless focus on ‘yield and profit,’ churn out a high volume of products, which they then supply to processors and supermarket chains at low prices. The low monetary prices are only feasible because the for-profit interests ignore (externalize) destructive, long- and short-term ecological costs (including human wellbeing) involved in getting such industrial food to the shelves. Cheap food floods the supermarkets at the expense of environmental health, biodiversity, small-scale farmers, rural economies, local control, and resilience.

Meanwhile, the proponents of industrialized food systems assert they are heroes, indispensably supplying one of humanity’s most essential needs. Instead, their ‘cheap,’ fossil fuel-dependent form of food production is generating catastrophic climate change. Recent studies have revealed that over a third of the climate- and ocean-destroying greenhouse gases (GHGs) are by-products of the current, dominant, industrialized food system. This large-scale, commodified form of farming and delivering food only persists because of the burning of propane, oil and natural gas extracted from the U.S. and other countries. These climate-destabilizing substances power the massive equipment, the fertilizer and pesticide plants, and the wasteful, brittle, global food chains that ultimately process, package, and bring such food to the public.

In exchange for cheap food on supermarket shelves, institutional settings, and restaurants, we’ve become dependent on economic and political forces in far-off countries and the interests of a few super-wealthy people. When we participate in this unjust and monopolized food system, we inadvertently contribute to the oppression and displacement of people from the United States' rural heartlands and the destruction of traditional farming cultures worldwide. We become entangled in a way of eating that, for the sake of money, is destroying the planet's life-support systems (including our health), all the while removing opportunities for dignified, creative, life-stewarding ways of working and obtaining nourishment. With so many weak links in increasingly complex supply chains (and less capacity for local regions to feed themselves), it’s easy to imagine what happens when one link in this chain of dependency breaks and the failing system collapses. We saw it during COVID-19. Shortages, lack of local production, and scarcity ultimately drive food prices up and leave more and more people susceptible to hunger. The capacity for local food sovereignty disappears. Famine looms as soils, water, and climate degrade.

A more rational, life-centered farming model is created when many small, diversified independent farms care for the soil, water, air, workforce, and eaters. These farms value and create supportive and dynamic ecosystems. Eco-agriculture and organic farm practices rely on a healthy scale of production and farm diversity. They deliberately reduce their reliance on extractive fossil fuel inputs, including synthetic nitrogen. Farmers may sell directly to consumers and responsibly control their growing practices, sales, and processing methods. More money and decision-making power stays with farmers. A lower production volume may result in slightly higher monetary prices for customers in the short term, but there is more security and care for all in the long term. The region’s biological communities can be protected from toxic pesticides and herbicides; organic practices can regenerate its soils; a job-rich, convivial, local economy can flourish. On the macro level, a healthy and just planet can emerge. Think farmer’s markets, farmstands, CSAs, local foods for local schools, enlightened co-ops, and food hubs! 

Did you know that US farmers and ranchers receive only 14.3 cents of every food dollar consumers spend?  The complete graphic can be found at the National Farmers Union website,  Prices based on November 2022 data based on retail prices of the Safeway (SE) brand except where noted.  

Since the retail prices of the graphic are taken from the Safeway brand, most of these products are from large-scale factory farms or large family-owned farms since supermarket chains don’t typically purchase from small farms. 

How many tomatoes would a New Hampshire farmer have to grow to make a profit or cover fossil fuel expenses? How much land would that require? What is left to pay farmers and workers? What land is left available to future organic farmers? How many of those tomatoes were wasted?

It is evident farmers are not making a considerable profit. Small farms continue to disappear and are being replaced with large farms. Innovative young farmers cannot afford to farm. All this creates inequity - giving the wealthiest stakeholders control of our food system and its pricing.

By Kate Dobrowski, Edith Pucci Couchman, Bill Wardwell & NOFA-NH’s Education Committee Members.

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