Joseph and the Amazingly Expensive Commodity Crops

Today, I disagreed with Michael Pollan. (I know – I’m a little bit scared too.) According to an article in today’s NY Times, my favorite foodie believes that the rising price of commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans is a good thing. The Times reports:

“[Pollan] likes the idea that some kinds of food will cost more, and here’s one reason why: As the price of fossil fuels and commodities like grain climb, nutritionally questionable, high-profit ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup will, too. As a result, Cokes are likely to get smaller and cost more. Then, the argument goes, fewer people will drink them.”

In other words, if the price of a Big Mac goes up high enough, then people will switch to purchasing vegetables at the farmers’ market. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be member of Pollan’s shul – I buy his argument that paying more for “good” food like free range eggs or organic milk is worthwhile, and that cheap foods are falsely cheap (though perhaps not for long).

But I think Pollan’s assertion that: A (foods made with commodity crops) + B (higher prices on those crops) = C (consumers purchasing more fruits and veggies from small farms) doesn’t necessarily hold up for the majority of the country’s eaters.

It makes great sense for me – a religious farmers’ market shopper and CSA member who has access to local products more or less whenever I want them – to eschew the Mickey D’s and feel really good about buying local . But what about the many moms (and dads) who don’t have access to healthier alternatives? The Times reports:

“Someone on the margin who says ‘I’m struggling’ would say rising food costs are in no way a positive,” said Ephraim Leibtag of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Those folks who study Torah (or have ever seen the hit musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) know the following story: After interpreting Pharoah’s dream, Joseph convinces Pharoah to stockpile grain for seven years. When famine hits the region seven years later, Egypt is the only country with adequate food reserves.

Pollan’s assertions that higher priced commodity crops could lead to a significant change in consumer behavior assume that we (America) have already done adequate “stockpiling” work. But we have not. Farmers’ markets and CSAs – let alone fruits and veggies – do not yet reach into many of country’s poorest cities and rural areas. And according to a CNN report, “global food reserves [are] at their lowest in a quarter century,” which means bad weather this summer could send prices soaring even higher. With this in mind, I just don’t think it’s fair or particularly effective to say to lower and middle-class people people, “Okay, now your cheap food is expensive – have you thought about buying [also expensive] local food?”

So, while Pollan might be correct that the rising price of commodity crops might encourage some people to make the switch to local, grass fed, non-commodity foods, as long as the majority of consumers’ “fork votes” are going towards cheap food, “the intellectual musings of the food elite,” as The Times states, “might be trampled in the stampede to the value menu.”

–Leah Koenig