Food: why value and price are not the same thing
In Proverbios y Cantares, Antonio Machado said that only fools confuse value and price. These are two words whose relationship is practically a paradox, because without air and water, we would not survive; however, their price is zero or a ridiculous sum of money.
A bottle of water on the supermarket shelf is not the same as a bottle of water in the middle of the desert, in the same way that a dish that we buy frozen, full of additives, is not the same as the home-cooked dish that our family used to prepare for us with the ingredients of our homeland. There is a subjective value in this story, as intangible as it is undeniable.
Enhancing the value of our food
Feeding is eating, but it is also an act loaded with values. It means nourishing ourselves, taking care of our environment, sharing the dining area as a family, cooking together, choosing what food to buy and how to cook it… Food is part of our culture, our identity and our history.
- Eating is tradition: it means valuing food as our grandmothers did, whose dishes we remember so fondly.
- Eating is to take responsibility as citizens: we can change the world through what we eat, generate jobs, take care of our landscapes and support causes such as the fight against animal abuse, job insecurity and food waste.
- Eating is nutrition: because the quality and variety of the food that we put into our body are key to good health.
- Eating is a social commitment: because your choices matter and individual change leads to collective change.
The danger of reducing value to a number
When we buy food, its price represents nothing more than an exchange between several parties. And the latter is fundamental: there are different parties involved. In other words, the price concerns all the people involved in the process of getting that food to your cupboard. This involves the supplier of inputs for production, the people engaged in agriculture, fishing, livestock and beekeeping who dedicate their resources to produce food. We also mustn’t forget manufacturers, distributors, people involved in logistics and points of sale. Each and every one of them must charge a fair price for their work, something that is put at risk when a low price is set.
According to Dionisio Ortiz, professor in the Department of Economics and Social Sciences at the Universidad Politécnica de València, there is beginning to be a certain consensus in academia that food prices do not reflect the full costs of food production and do not represent what it costs or what society is sacrificing to obtain them or their environmental implications.
And this is where the definition of value becomes more important. When you buy any food, does it matter whether it contributes to deforestation or labour exploitation? Are you really aware of the work involved in getting that product to you? Does this offer, which often seems like a gift, do justice to the value of the food?
To cheapen food is to cheapen life itself
There is an explanation for the lower cost of food. For a long time, one of mankind’s challenges has been to produce enough food for the entire population of the planet. While this was functional and necessary, the downside of this solution is obvious: food has become a sort of cheap commodity that appears as if by magic in supermarkets, taking markets and small traders by storm, a trend that has intensified in recent decades. At the same time, we have lost the connection with food, the interest in its origin and value.
According to English architect and urban planner Carolyn Steel, author of the book “Hungry City” (Captain Swing), cheap food is an illusion and is nothing more than evidence that along the supply chain someone lost out.
And the planet loses too. Treating food as a purely speculative and marketable commodity has probably been the greatest ecological disaster of our time. “It’s destroying us and it’s destroying the planet, and the only way we can stop it and be able to create a better world with a smaller carbon footprint is to give it back its true value”, the expert says in this interview.
Small producers, the light at the end of the tunnel
The solution to this problem is to restore the true value of food to create a virtuous circle in which everyone wins. According to Steel, change can happen very quickly: by paying more to farmers, who are the true custodians of the land and who can ensure sustainability during the production process. This change would allow a rebalancing of urban-rural relations, leading to cities where everyone has access to the right food.
In addition, the urban planning expert says that soils, water and biodiversity are the key to healthy food production. And that is precisely why we urgently need to start farming in a regenerative way: working hand in hand with nature to create living soils, rich local ecosystems and a balance between food production and the wild world.
Key ways to get out of the fantasy world of cheap food
Getting out of the cheap food trap is possible. You, as a consumer, can contribute to the value of food by loving your food and developing respect for everything behind what you eat by following three recommendations from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO):
1. Consume responsibly
Planning meals and buying only what you need will keep you from throwing food away. In addition, every time you shop you can help prevent food waste by choosing “ugly” looking fruits and vegetables and staying informed about how to interpret expiration dates.
2. Support small producers by buying at local markets
Don’t forget that the history of food begins with a farmer. You can assess the work involved in producing food by visiting your nearest local market. By learning where our food comes from, what foods are produced in each season and what it takes to produce them, we increase our knowledge and respect for what we eat.
3. Adopt a healthier and more sustainable diet
As the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said, “you are what you eat”. Opt for a varied, seasonal and local diet. This way you contribute to your health, support small producers and reduce the environmental impact.
When we value food, we all win. What if we start now?