The Ethics of the Cost of Ethical Food

It’s bad if high prices get in the way of eating a) well or b) ethically, and there are plenty of myths about both. And today alone I’ve read two interesting pieces on the price of food.

First, the NYT’s Mark Bittman asks, Is Junk Food Really Cheaper? The answer, Bittman says, is “no.” Or at least, it needn’t be cheaper. A nutritious home-cooked meal can pretty easily be cheaper than a trip to McDonald’s, but more people need to stop thinking of cooking as a chore.

The second piece was by Rob O’Flanagan, writing for the Guelph Mercury: Bemoaning the high cost of ethical food

In quite recent times I’ve become a more conscientious consumer of food, avoiding processed food, junk food and sugary food, careful to buy local, raw, organic, fresh, chemical-free, free-range, Ontario-grown . . . all of those terms that presumably differentiate between evil and ethical food.

But the cost of it all is starting to bug me….

“At the farmers’ market it is assumed one is willing to pay a premium for certain things,” says O’Flanagan, “But are we being unfairly made to pay more?” A lot of people buying at the farmer’s market, says O’Flanagan, aren’t paying extra for better nutrition; they’re “paying for status”. That’s roughly the line that Andrew Potter, author of The Authenticity Hoax, takes: buying organic (etc. etc.) is, at least for many people, essentially a form of status-seeking.

But of course, that realization doesn’t make all arguments about better-and-worse ways to produce food simply disappear. There are still reasons to pay attention to food ethics, and in some cases, at least, good reasons to be willing to pay more. O’Flanagan says he’s willing to do his part, but warns that those who sell what he considers “ethical” food mustn’t engage in price-gouging:

I’m willing to do the right thing by buying ethical food. I expect vendors to do the right thing and not price the stuff through the roof.

Part of the problem, though, is that consumers are pretty limited in their ability to detect price-gouging. Most of us don’t understand very well the business models of the businesses (large or small) that we buy our food from. (See my recent blog entry on the not-so-obvious factors that go into the Price of a Cocktail.) In many cases, producers of a given product don’t have much real choice about what they charge — they need to cover their costs, but they can’t charge more than what consumers are willing to pay (which is in part determined by the forces of competition).

One last thought: when you pay extra for what you take to be ethical food — and in many cases that’s a highly dubious label — you absolutely must consider what economists call the “opportunity cost” of that food. That is, every dollar you spend on food that someone tells you is more ethical is a dollar you’re not spending on education, on art, or on donating to worthy causes. That’s not a reason not to buy “ethical” foods. But it is a reason not to reach reflexively for your wallet every time someone tells you this or that product is “more ethical.”

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in consumerism, ethics, farmers markets, local, marketing, organic, prices, values. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Ethics of the Cost of Ethical Food

  1. Pingback: Responsible Investing and Values-Based Investing « The Business Ethics Blog

  2. While I do believe that truly “ethical” food is worth more, both morally and nutritionally, I don’t blame the farmer for that cost. Seems like our government puts the agricultural subsidies mostly (if not all) towards the mass production of vastly inferior quality animal products and crops for us to eat. Basically, lots of cheap food with less nutritional value in addition to pesticide contamination and GMOs. Abundance of food does not guarantee access to healthy food.

    Buying at a farmer’s market ONLY means that you are buying local if you don’t ask questions. I’ve been to farmer’s markets where not a single vendor was organic in practice, not to mention being certified organic. I don’t agree that most people buying at farmer’s markets are “status seeking”. It’s MUCH more trouble to go to the farmer’s market, then the grocery store to fill in what you couldn’t get at the farmer’s market. Certainly not something I’d do to impress other people!

    Actually, I don’t think that ethical food is so much overpriced as it is that we have become so accustomed to dirt cheap food in the US, especially compared to Europe.

  3. Dave Kamrat says:

    I am the founder and owner of Planet Verde We try to represent independent small farmers in Oregon and sell their products directly to homes and business.
    It is true that our products are often more expensive than the commercial counterparts found at the chain style grocer. It is hard for consumers to pay more for ethically grown food. I understand and sometimes have to compromise as well. However, this is also true. Of the 50 farmers or so we know and represent, not one is living a rich lifestyle. All are just barley making it, working long hours and certainly not getting rich. You simply are not comparing apples to apples when you compare a large agra-business company with large resources, large machines, government backed loans to the local farmer. The deck is heavily stacked in the favor of the large producers. Yet, there are other hidden costs. Injecting loads of antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides. herbicides into the land, our bodies and our ecosystems are having devastating results. Some of which are known and documented while others will likely be revealed as this relatively new model of Agribusiness is studied over time.
    The other hidden cost are our local economies. We have already lost our manufacturing base of jobs to other countries. Are we willing to pay $500 for a pair of local produced sneakers rather than $60 dollars for one produced in China?. It is not going to happen. Go to Macy’s or Home Depot- Not much is American made. So with the downfall of this base of jobs, what do we have left? Not all of us can or will participate in information technology, work for Google, Apple etc.
    Nor can we all be lawyers, doctors and service professionals. Therefore, what we all can do is support local, organic farmers.and perhaps reclaim this sector.
    At Planet Verde we say ” you can’t outsource local food”
    Perhaps it will cost up to 50% more but the benefits outweigh the costs for our personal and collective health. Feel free to comment on Face Book.

Comments are closed.