On its face, the statement makes no sense. If food is cheaper it’s more affordable and more people should be able to get an adequate diet. That is true for people who buy food, such as those living in cities. But it is quite obviously not true if you’re the one growing the food. You’re getting less for your crops, less for your work, less for your family to live on. That is as true for Vermont dairy farmers as it is for rice farmers in the Philippines. Dairy farmers today are getting prices for their milk that are well below their costs of production. They are putting less food on their own tables. And they are going out of business at an alarming rate. When the economic dust settles, this will leave us with fewer family farmers producing the dairy products most of us depend on.
This is the central contradiction of cheap food. Low agricultural prices cause hunger in the short term among farmers. And they cause food insecurity in the long term because they reduce both the number of farmers and the money they have to invest in producing more food.
An estimated 70% of the world’s poor live in rural areas and depend either directly or indirectly on agriculture. Cheap food has made them hungry and kept them in poverty. It has also starved the countryside in the developing world of much-needed agricultural investment. Farmers have nothing to invest if they are losing money on their crops.
Globalisation brings prices down. The problem is that some things just shouldn’t be cheapened. The market is very good at establishing the value of many things but it is not a good substitute for human values. Societies need to determine their own human values, not let the market do it for them. There are some essential things, such as our land and the life-sustaining foods it can produce, that should not be cheapened.