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The ethics of the cost of ethical food

There are some good reasons to pay more for ethical food, but there are a few myths you shouldn't swallow.

It’s bad if high prices get in the way of consumers either eating well or eating ethically. And there are plenty of myths about the effect of prices on both.  I’ve recently read two interesting pieces on the price of food, both of which are worth a look. One is about nutritious food, and the other is about eating ethically. It’s worth looking at the two side-by-side, in part because so many foodies want to tell you, without much justification, that nutrition and ethics go hand-in-hand.

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, “Bemoaning the high cost of ethical food,”is by Rob O’Flanagan in the Guelph Mercury:

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. 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.”

Note: This post originally appeared September 25, 2011, on The Food Ethics Blog.