News from up the Creek

Farm-to-Fork and the Real Cost of Food

By Mike Madison / Photography By Benjamin Della Rosa | September 01, 2014
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Farm to Fork and Cost of Food
There is another argument, and it has to do with the cost of food.

The value of “farm to fork” (meaning a local, seasonal food economy with few intermediaries between farmer and diner) is supported by three main arguments:

1 The culinary argument is that local produce, harvested at the peak of ripeness when it is fragrant, delicious and fragile, will always be superior to produce shipped from a distance, which has to be harvested at an immature stage in order to survive the rigors of long-distance travel.

2 The argument of community solidarity emphasizes the social and economic connections between farmer and diner, which build a strong community and contribute to food security and political independence.

3 And the topographic argument describes the increased rootedness and sense of place, as well as the heightened awareness of seasonality, that come from a local food economy.

In addition to these three, there is another argument, more abstract and less accessible, that supports the superiority of a healthy farm-to-fork economy. It has to do with the cost of food.

Over the last hundred years, the US has adhered to three priorities: cheap energy, cheap food and expensive health care. No other nation has chosen to imitate that peculiar combination of policies. These priorities are embedded in our tax codes, our government budgets, our statutes and ordinances, our foreign policies and our market structures. It should be noted that cheap energy is a prerequisite for cheap food because modern industrial agriculture is very energy intensive (you could imagine it as converting tanker cars of petroleum into tanker cars of highfructose corn syrup at a ratio not much better than one to one; we eat oil, only slightly indirectly).

The word cheap in cheap energy and cheap food refers to the price, not the cost. Price is a purely social construct—how much money changes hands—whereas cost is based in physical reality and refers to the labor, capital and resources going into the production and delivery of the product. In a rational economy, price and cost should be about the same. But prices can be manipulated to differ quite a bit from cost, and for us, the prices of food and energy are much lower than their costs; a European price of $8 for a gallon of gasoline is far closer to its cost than our low price of $4.

To keep prices artificially low, the product must be subsidized by shifting costs elsewhere. And so our low prices for food and energy are underwritten by environmental degradation, tax breaks to oil companies, direct government subsidies to commodity farms, bad foreign policies, oil wars, climate change, declining public health, cruelty to animals raised in confinement, abuse of antibiotics in animal feed, depletion of aquifers and run-up of enormous public debt (to name just a few).

When prices fail to reflect costs, markets are distorted, and when prices are too low (for us that includes food, water, energy and credit) those items are used wastefully.

What this leads up to is that when you look past the false information of price and attempt to calculate true cost, you find that a local, farm-to-fork economy is superior—economically, socially and ecologically—to relying on long-distance food. This is the fourth argument in support of farm to fork: Regardless of price, local food costs less.

To those of us critical of corporate culture, participation in a healthy farm-to-fork economy is not just about local flavor, healthful food and community solidarity; it is also an act of defiance against Monsanto, Cargill, Nestle, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Tyson Foods and all the other profiteering organizations that control the production and distribution of industrial food.

At raucous political demonstrations back in the ’60s, crowds of demonstrators would chant in unison, ‘Power to the People!’ Most of us weren’t entirely clear what we meant by that slogan, but had we known about farm to fork, that certainly would have been part of it.


Mike Madison operates a family farm near Winters, CA, producing olives (Yolo Press Olive Oil), figs, apricots, melons, and cut flowers. His books about Sacramento Valley agriculture include Walking the Flatlands and Blithe Tomato.

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