Consumers are told that they have the power to change a system—”to vote with their wallets.” The food system can only change for the better if consumers are informed and able to understand the choices they make.
This illustration provides a visual breakdown of what the price of carrots encompasses. It also shows the consumer’s perception that the produce at farmers’ markets is overpriced.
By focusing solely on price, farmers are driven to chase the most profitable crops and the cheapest production systems to make short-term profit. According to the New York Times, farmers in California’s Central Valley are producing more water-demanding almonds in order to stay viable—despite the increasing strain on water supply.
This demonstrates our food choices are connected to many complex problems in our current food system. Therefore, consumers must be aware of what lies behind the price tag. The production of cheap food has both environmental and social implications.
The increase of field size, mechanization of production, and the use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides are results of the demand for cheap products. These tools make farm businesses more efficient, bringing higher yields in the short run, and the production of large quantities allows them to negotiate bulk deals with big retailers. Large-scale monoculture farming has farther-reaching implications and long-term effects that are detrimental to ecosystems, with externalities that include: soil erosion, soil compaction, lower water holding capacity, nutrient leaching to surface and ground water, and pesticide contamination.
San Diego farmers pay more for land and water than in most other parts of the country, which can explain the higher cost of locally grown food here in San Diego. Many small-scale farmers have more diversified production, which results in smaller yield production of each crop. Some small farmers are using agricultural techniques that help to regenerate the soil so that agricultural production is actually improving the environment in addition to creating nutritious and flavorful food.
Despite the belief that produce in the grocery store is cheaper than at farmers markets, two studies from the Vermont Department of Agriculture and the UC Cooperative Extension show that farmers’ market prices were competitive to retail prices, especially on organic produce.
Even if the price in reality may not be that different, it is what’s behind the price tag that counts.