People have become accustomed to cheap food. At the grocery store, we expect to pay less than $3 for a gallon of milk, and $1/pound for whole chicken. Many people scoff at the “high” price of organics and farmers’ market produce. Unfortunately, conventional and processed food has hidden costs, externalities not factored into the price structure: The farm subsidies which keep the costs artificially low, the extra health care costs from a culture that has become fatter and fatter from the “western diet”. And the environmental impact of processing and shipping food, and soil erosion. Worse still, conventional food producers do not have the same commitment to paying workers and farmers a fair wage.
The economics of our food system are broken. We need to make investments in farms and food producers that not only sell high quality products, but also practice sustainable farming. We need to shift our focus from solely looking at short-term financial returns to include long-term social returns.
Equal Exchange has been championing a sustainable food system since 1986 by helping small farmers bring chocolate, coffee and tea to market and earn a fair profit for their crops. And Slow Money is a new organization that is looking for ways to invest money in our local food economies so that we not only grow more healthy food, but preserve the land and our environment.
Several weeks ago, I went to the National Gathering for Slow Money in Burlington, VT. The highlights were listening to Joel Salatin (from Polyface Farm) and Gary Hirschberg (CEO of Stonyfield) speak about the nature of their organic businesses.
You may recall Mr. Salatin from Omnivores’ Dilemma and Food, Inc. He’s an engaging speaker whose business focus is not on earning or profits, but on producing the highest quality product and protecting the environment. He posits, if revenues drop, the solution is not in marketing, but in improving quality: a high quality product sells itself.
Gary Hirschberg provided an interesting counterpoint to Polyface’s business model. You may recall that Stonyfield was sold to DANONE several years ago, and has since brokered a deal with Wal-Mart to sell yogurt in their stores. Stonyfield got a lot of flak from the “organic” community for this decision. But Mr. Hirschberg reminded us that we need to help organic become a mainstream food item, not an elitist luxury. Selling through Wal-Mart is an important step in that goal.
I was also impressed by some of the real, tangible cost savings that Stonyfield reaps by being organic. Humanely raised cows yield more milk and live longer. Ultimately, the cost of milk produced from his cows is less expensive than the commercial counterpart. As such, he pays more to the farmers for their milk so that they can earn a respectable wage for their work.
Equal Exchange is an important player in a sustainable food economy. In addition to being a champion of all farmers having the right to earn a fair profit for their crops, they also give out $65,000 in grants to organizations who are working to support Fair Trade, small-farmers and co-operatives. In fact, every year they give out 7% of net profits in this manner. Equal Exchange appreciates your interest in sustainable food systems.
As a thank you, they will give a $40 gift certificate to one lucky reader. All you need to do is leave a comment here. And please share your thoughts on sustainable food systems and organic vs. conventional. A winner will be announced on Tuesday, July 6th. You must have an active PayPal account to receive the gift certificate.
Update: The deadline has passed for the give-away and the winner has been notified. Congratulations to Miss Maya who won the gift certificate. Thanks to all for the wonderful comments.