Tuesday, June 27, 2006

More thought for food 

The food and supermarkets debate goes on, with a thoughtful contribution by Joe Otten – making the point that it isn’t just the structure of ‘supermarkets’ that presents the problem – there are wider issues taking the problem beyond any one organisational boundary. With that point I agree –and as someone who has in the past had to live on JSA of £50.00 a week and scraped subsistence by haunting supermarkets at the times of day that ‘reduced to clear’ items came on the shelves I also concede his point on the social factor of low food prices.

Just a couple more thoughts and bits of reportage – no conclusions here.

News from elsewhere, form a totally unsubsidised agricultural system. In Canada a Toronto Globe and Mail article back on 6th February 2006 February (by Heather Scoffield, behind subscription firewall) had this to say:

In case you missed it, yesterday was Food Freedom Day -- the day when the average Canadian has made enough money to cover the cost of food and non-alcoholic drinks for an entire year. That's good news for consumers. And bad news for food retailers and farmers.
The portion of disposable income that Canadians spend on food has slowly eroded over the past decade. In 1997, Canadians put 12.5 per cent of their spending money towards food; today, it's about 9.25 per cent. Not only are Canadians spending less of their money on food, but a smaller and smaller portion of that is going to farmers. They are reporting the worst three years in recent history in terms of farm income……

Generally, prices of basic food have been falling steadily for years, because of advances in agricultural technology and huge productivity gains, said Richard Gray, head of agricultural economics at the University of Saskatchewan. Food prices overall are rising because of spending on processed food and going to restaurants.

Productivity gains have been so enormous that a subsistence diet bought directly from a farmer would cost well under $50 a year in Canada, Mr. Gray said.

Fifty Dollars Canadian is about £20 sterling I think.

But the article also says that the profit margins in the stores are getting massively squeezed. As I see it, if we really are interested in ‘cheap food’ we should look at where the big price hikes are coming between producers and the shops.

Another bit of news from elsewhere – SLATE online magazine in the USA is carrying a dialogue on ‘Is Wall-Mart good for the American Working Class?’ between Barbara Ehrenreich and Jason Furman. Some interesting exchanges illustrating the complexities of economic interactions… One claim Furman puts forwards is that 50% of the productivity edge that the USA has over Europe over the last decade comes from the revolution enforced by the big-box stores such as Wall-Mart. References for this claim in this article by Kenneth Rogoff.

On cheapness of supermarkets an article in today’s Independent by Terence Blacker (also firewalled) discusses a report just published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Blacker says:

Nine years ago Suffolk Coastal District Council bravely withstood the blandishments of TESCO and refused planning permission for one of their outlets near Saxmundham. The result according to the CPRE report is that … within the catchment area of the proposed superstore independent shops have bucked the national trend and are thriving.. beyond the ethical good sense of shopping small, customers who are lucky enough to have decent locals hops have discovered that the cost-choice-convenience mantra offered by supermarkets is at least two-thirds a lie. Buy local food from local suppliers and it will be cheaper.

The CPRE report (1.1MB .pdf) is available here. Blacker's slant on the story can be summed up in his headline: Tear down these ugly cathedrals of capitalism.

Quite a lot of material for an ongoing debate!

On one thing I disagree with Joe Otten. He says

I see no way for a little blog to give a convincing argument either way on whether more intervention is necessary. I hope the authorities are getting it right, and I am powerless to help them.

Actually both Joe and I have our little blogs and our other voices in a political process which includes the LibDem Party and other organisations we may help to influence. Just on occasion one or other of us, or someone else we may glimpse in passing, may ask the question that puts the spotlight on the emperors clothes. And the whole complex of market forces is there for us to influence in our little ways.

I have no intention of ‘trusting the authorities to get it right’ just like that, any more than I trust the government to make war and peace and get it right just like that.

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