Updated: Jun 30, 2021
The fancy food dilemma
Imagine this; you wake yourself up this morning with a smell of a nice artisan coffee, along with the whole grain bagel stuffed with organic vegetables and free-range eggs (yes, eggs that comes from chickens that could wander freely, living a happier life than what I might have). This sounds like a fancy breakfast, right? But this might be the less costly meal plan if you consider all the cost included in the process of growing our food. Organic, fair-trade, and animal-fair certifications are still considered as a ‘fancy’ added points to our food. It is seen as a product for higher income household. People are still considering the better practices are good for their ‘health’ and ‘feelings’ only.
Economy is all about low investment and high return, this would also apply to our market. We want as much food as we could for the lowest price as possible. Our demand for affordable foods, fiber, and fuels increases continuously regardless of how it is being produced. As a result, our food grower would try to cut as much cost. They will sacrifice the labor pay, uses the cheap fuel with high carbon emission, and practice a more intensive food production with a lot of fertilizer, so they could produce more food to have enough return from selling their low-priced goods. On the other words, the lower priced item bought by the consumers might be produced under an unsustainable production. These low prices of the market are being compensated by other hidden way by consumers; having to pay high price for clean water, higher healthcare cost due to polluted environment, or even worse, burdening all the cost of the degraded environment to the future generations.
Should we pay more?
Unsustainable practices would lead to various problems. Have we ever consider how much carbon are released during the food production? How much nitrogen are released from the farms and polluting our water during the process of growing our food? Have we ever consider the burden that must be carried by the farmers due to unfair pricing? Ultimately, how much money must be spent to tackle all those problems and who will be responsible on paying the injury cost and ‘fix’ the problems?
These are an invisible price that we haven’t include to our food; the price that we would have to pay eventually due to unsustainable practices. We also call this unseen price as externalities. Other example of externalities are the price to capture the heavily emitted carbon due to the use of unsustainable fuel, the price to ‘clean’ our polluted water, and the cost we have to bear when we lost the biodiversity due to land use change.
Some people might argue that these externalities has to be taxed to the customers. The consumers are indeed the major driver of the market, and thus define how the product is being produced. Some also claim that the government should be the one who pay for the unsustainable practices’ side effect, as they have the power to create intervention and manipulate the market to buy more sustainable produces. In real life, the farmers are those who carry all the cost caused by the unsustainable food production. They are the one who would be impacted first when the soil are no longer fertile and they would be the one whose health are compromised first due to synthetic chemicals overuse.
However, I think everyone should take their part in creating sustainability, including a more sustainable market. EOSTA (2019) state that a multi-stakeholder collaboration is required to shape the market. We need to include the invisible prices to the food’s price tag. Choosing products with certifications or buying products that are being produced under a certain standard would help to ensure lower these invisible prices, and therefore lower the future unseen debt we would have to face. While these invisible prices way of calculation are still under a debate (such as to what extent we should include the externalities to our food), the concept of how we must treat our food production has to be changed immediately.