Accuracy in Media

Salon reported in a new piece that food prices are at historic highs. This is a ludicrous ignorance of the real world – food prices have been falling since the invention of agriculture 8,000 years ago. This is, in fact, what makes it possible for us to have a civilization at all – the food’s cheaper, so we need fewer people growing it and we have others who can build the schools, staff the hospitals and so on. But Salon does claim it in the subhead: “One thing is certain: Historically high food prices are only going to go up.”

Now one thing is true: Food in six months’ time is likely to be more expensive than it is now. Pulling the world’s two major exporters of grain – Ukraine and Russia – out of the global market is likely to have that effect. But the starting point is of, by historic standards, ludicrously low prices.

We do have the records on this. Food got cheaper with agriculture, then food got cheaper again with industrial agriculture in this past century. Salon is so sure of this that it repeats it: “Historically high food prices are only going to go up.”

Those first two words are categorically wrong. It gets even worse when we consider the true measure of a price  – how hard do I have to work to get that? Not what amount of money do I have to pay, but how long do I have to work to get the money to pay?

Back in 1962 Mollie Orshansky defined the current American poverty level. She observed that the average household spent 30% of income on food. So, the poverty level is three times a decent enough food budget. Today the average American household spends 10 to 12% of income on food. In just one lifetime food has, compared to incomes, declined in price by 66%.

That’s just not historically high food prices.

Salon is ranked, by some measures, at 83 in the listings of media outlets. It gains some 7 million visits a month. It’s influential in those politically minded progressive circles – dangerously so perhaps given the level of knowledge on display.

Food prices are at historic lows. A belief, or statement, that they’re at historic highs is simply ignorance, something which really doesn’t have that much place in good journalism.

We can even prove this another way. If food was expensive and so there was a good profit to be had from growing it then why are we spending hundreds of billions a year to support farmers? We can only have to support them if food is so cheap there’s no profit in it, right?




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