Monday, July 22, 2013

The British Can Admit It - Will We?

Major food price rises are all but inevitable. Philip Clarke, the chief executive of Britain's biggest supermarket chain Tesco, has admitted as much to the British press. Tesco, was heavily implicated in the recent horse-meat scandal, has said that rising global demand means the historic low prices to which British consumers have become used are now unsustainable. This is tantamount to the CEO of WalMart or Kroger admitting that they can no longer commit to keeping prices low for all Americans.

Any one who has been shopping lately can attest to the fact that the “invisible grocery shrink ray” is at work in our local markets. The packages may be rising slowly in price but the quantity in the package is smaller over all. The organics and locally grown stuff is characterized as for the elite and other who want to be upper class.

Is Kentucky (or America) that far behind this time? A recent poll, commissioned by the Prince's Countryside Fund to mark National Countryside Week, reveals that a majority of British consumers would be prepared to pay more for food if they knew the extra was going to farmers rather than to supermarket shareholders. With the recent introduction of the “Udderly Kentucky” milk program by the Secretary of Agriculture, James Comer, is he seeing the same sentiment from Kentucky shoppers?

The “Buy Local First” movement seems to be making headway and local farmers markets are establishing themselves in more locations every year. Still, the primary comments are that they are out of the reach of many residents. Sadly, such costs are reflective of the unsubsidized production costs for local entrepreneurs.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization forecast last month that global food prices could rise by as much as 40% over the next decade. Much of this as a result of a growing middle class in countries such as China and India. With the prospects of America's middle class waning and poverty moving to our once booming suburbs, this global rise will hit Americans very hard.

Usually, supermarket bosses (British and American) have proved extremely resistant to admitting economic pressures would affect the cost of groceries. WalMart has recently committed to its sourcing more locally produced fruits and vegetables without discussing whether price differences will be kept to a minimum. One way the WalMart has kept their prices low is to require the producer (or middleman) to do more preparatory work so that their “associates” don't have to.

What comes to mind next is WalMart's (and possibly the federal governments) definition of locally produced. Generally, the range of 500 miles is sufficient for most programs and for Lexington that means as far away as Central Michigan or the Gulf Coast. Local could them mean about 2/3rds of the Eastern U.S. National brands and the monoculture farming of agri-business can still dominate our food choices at that rate.

I can see that a growing number of Kentuckians (and Americans) are awakening to the reality that many of our corporations are (and have been) leading us astray with phrases like “supermarket to the world” while importing more and more under “trade” treaties. With all of our corporate farming debacles, many countries will not accept our exports for reasons like GMO's or processing concerns.

America's food system has become unsustainable and there is more than enough blame to cast in all directions. The big question is, can it be turned around in time to prevent it from crashing like a house of cards?

Larger stores and bigger selections may have helped get us to where we are but simply reversing those trends will not be a solution. Our seasonal treats of yesteryear have become the culinary mainstays of the declining middle class. Farmers who took great pride in their goods on the farm now see disease and pestilence introduced in the processing and packaging plants. Corporate marketing gurus have persuaded us that only the perfect looking fruit or vegetable is worthy of purchase. These trends also need to be altered.

The way it is major food price rises are all but inevitable, which leaves us with only one good option – to change the way it is.

1 comment:

Ahavah said...

Getting American consumers to accept the fact that real food does not look like plastic toys will be an interesting learning curve to watch. Prices are higher than they need to be in part because processing companies reject or discard perfectly good food on a regular basis - because Americans expect uniform color, etc., where mother nature prefers diversity. Chemicals poured on the food, fake ripening, and other artificial means are unnecessary and costly additions to the food chain. And, as you mentioned, those who used to grow items in greenhouses locally for out-of-season items have been driven out of business by cheap imports - whose prices do not reflect first world costs such as fair wages, environmental and safety laws. The real costs of food production in a fair, safe and sustainable manner are going to shock Americans. We pay lower prices than almost anyone in the developed world due to exploitative predatory trade practices, and as more and more countries and their workers start telling US corporations to go frac themselves, Americans will feel the bite of their previous greed and unconcern for others.