Food for Thought About Food

by Thayne Cozart
Director of Communications, National Organization for Raw Materials

Farmgate prices of raw food products fluctuate widely and wildly on the open markets. Do these market gyrations make sense? Let's make a few logical observations about food and raw food product prices.

Observation #1: I doubt that all our research and technology in agriculture this century has caused much change in the foundation nutritional value of a bushel of corn, a bushel of soybeans, a pound of beef steak, a pound of pork chop, a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a bushel of apples, etc. I think each commercial unit of fresh-off-the-farm food that our forebears ate was quite similar in nutritional value to the same unit of food that we eat today. A pound of lean Wooly Mammoth protein cooked over an open fire probably contained about the same nutritional value as a pound of beef steak cooked over the backyard grill. There may be marginal differences because of improved genetics, improved management, but I doubt that those differences are very significant.

Observation #2: If #1 is true and the intrinsic nutritional value of a unit of raw food changes but little down through time, then why does the farmers' farmgate price of a unit of any commodity fluctuate so much from day to day, week to week, month to month and year to year? Why was a bushel of corn early in 1996 priced at $5/bushel, and why was the same bushel priced below $3/bushel by the end of the year, when the nutritional value was the same? What do we really purchase food for? What is in food that is valuable? Don't we purchase food for its calories, its macronutrients, and its micronutrients? If those don't change much, then why does the price change so dramatically?

Observation #3: Through the years, it seems that a standard unit of every other human necessity, with the singular exception of food, has increased in price roughly equal to the cumulative rise in the Consumer Price Index. Clothing costs more but a coat still covers just one back. Housing costs more, but a board foot of lumber or a cement block or a square of shingles or tin still covers the same amount of space. A gallon or a BTU of fuel costs more. Modes of transportation (cars) and power units (tractors) cost more. Even the minimum wage costs more but an hour is still an hour. Why not standard units of food?

It is because an illogical double-standard exists for agricultural commodities. If the prices of the basic units of raw farm commodities were encouraged to reflect a stable value based upon their intrinsic nutritive value indexed to the Consumer Price Index, rural America would experience an immediate economic revitalization that would soon finds its way into urban America in the form of more jobs and higher wages.