Monday, November 30, 2009

August 2008: The $374 Tomato

Why should you buy a locally grown tomato when it’s more expensive than one brought in from Chile or California? And how is it possible for a tomato that travels all that distance to be cheaper, anyway?

One study that tried to determine the “real” cost of the food we eat says that the tomato from California actually costs $374!

Let’s back up and look at how the “real” cost of things can be so far out of whack with what we actually pay. So you think gas prices are high? Actually, gasoline is vastly under priced! Studies in the U.S. and Britain have attempted to look at what gasoline really costs us, the consumers, when all factors are taken into account: enormous subsidies (taxpayer paid) to the oil companies, huge government expenditures on road construction and maintenance, millions of hectares of land taken out of production, environmental degradation, and billions of dollars spent on automobile-related health issues including accident injuries and pollution-related health problems. The U.S. studies estimated that the real cost of gas is as high as $15 a gallon! The British studies suggested petrol there actually cost between 15 and 16 £ per gallon (around $8 per litre!) Whether you drive a car or not, you’re paying about $5000 per car per year in direct and indirect subsidies. (

Similar assessments have been made to determine the real cost of food. Consider that the food in an average family meal in North America is estimated to travel over 3000 km. from producer to table, and remember the real cost of fuel. (A strawberry with the food value of 5 calories uses up 435 calories to get from California to Toronto.) Add in the tonnes of chemical fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide needed to grow single-crop produce on factory farms year after year in the same soil (U.S. monocroppers use a billion pounds of pesticides a year!) and all the other hidden expenses of “efficient” large scale production. And think about the environmental and human effects of cutting down forests to grow corn, or converting thousands of small farms into single enormous monocrop farm factories. While millions of Ethiopeans starve, the country’s internationally owned farm factories continue to churn out coffee!

Big Agriculture, the enormous corporate entities that produce most of the food in Canada and the U.S., are not concerned about the long term costs of the food they produce, costs that will have to be paid in the future, because their only responsibility is to make profit. However, future generations will have to pay the environmental and social costs of “cheap” food when the bills come in for water depletion, forest removal, environmental degradation, and human displacement.

An entertaining animated cartoon that dramatizes the mind-boggling “real” costs of food is available at It uses the figures from studies in the U.S. to estimate the price of a factory farm-produced tomato at $374, and the real price of a pound of steak at $815!

What to do? Buy locally produced food from small farms that use sane and sustainable agricultural practices. Go to the local markets and, where possible, buy organic food. Look for the “grown in Ontario” label. Ask your butcher for meat from local producers. The more we think about the food we eat, the more we consciously make informed choices when we shop for food, the better off we’ll be, nutritionally, environmentally, and economically.

For more information about the Slow Food movement, look at and to learn about the Pelham Convivium, write to Renée Girard at

Slow-roasted Herbed Tomatoes
Slice four locally-grown tomatoes in half horizontally and carefully scoop out the seeds. In a medium hot non-stick frying pan, sear the tomatoes, cut side down until the juices evaporate and the tomatoes are carmelized (about 10 minutes). Carefully put them, cut side up, in a roasting pan and sprinkle with a mixture of 2 Tbsp of oregano and 2 finely chopped garlic cloves. Drizzle with olive oil, and roast in a 300 degree oven for 40 to 60 minutes, until they are shriveled but retain their shape. Serve as a side dish with grilled steak or chops.

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