But, err, why should we do this?

Which goes some way to explaining why Britain, a country perfectly suited to growing apples, now imports 70% of those we eat. The apple shelves are a global tour, from Chile to South Africa, from New Zealand to China, even as we head into prime British apple season. We will never become self-sufficient in apples, but it is possible to reverse the numbers so that only 30% come from abroad, if we stop being obsessed over the look of the fruit and are prepared to pay more for what we buy, so that fruit farmers could invest in new varieties and the best storage techniques.

But why should we pay more for what we buy when we\’re currently being supplied with what we want?

Cost is key. In the early 90s, we spent roughly 20% of our wages on our shopping bill. Today, it\’s nearer 10%, even allowing for recent inflation, and we assume these low prices to be a right. The result is margins for our farmers that are so tight many are giving up. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the dairy industry which is not only shedding farmers every week, but losing its future workforce too, as the traditions of family succession dwindle. Farmers\’ kids don\’t want to go into the business and their parents don\’t want them too, either. A country suited to dairy farming is no longer self-sufficient in milk. We\’re importing the stuff.

Blimey, how glorious is this capitalist free market thing, eh? Food, as a portion of income, just halved in price in only 20 years?

It\’s true that food prices have been falling since the Neolithic….this is what has allowed civilisation to occur. But in only 20 years, in the midst of the second great burst of neo-liberal globalisation, prices halve?

Ain\’t that just friggin\’ fabulous? Why in buggery would anyone want to reverse that?

The major supermarkets are not inherently evil. On balance, they probably help our lives more than they hinder them, but they only respond to consumer demand and what the consumer demands is not always right.

Ah, so, here we come to the nub of it. Mr. Rayner is convinced that he knows better what people should stuff into their faces than those doing the stuffing into faces do.

It\’s always the lefties who end up telling the people they\’re wrong, isn\’t it? Despite all these appeals to democracy which insist that the people are correct.

Wonder why?

13 comments on “But, err, why should we do this?

  1. Tim, you don’t get it, democracy is only “right” when it delivers what they want ! Those who “know better” are always right, so it is therefore only really democratic when you agree with them.

  2. Today, it’s [shopping bill] nearer 10%, even allowing for recent inflation

    Blimey, I wish my shopping bill was only 10% of my wages! Extrapolate – a family earning average wage of £25000 should spend £2500 a year on shopping = £48 a week = £6.85 a day. I don’t think so. Even if “shopping” means “food”.

  3. @KS
    Also shopping at supermarkets pretty well makes a car essential.When you factor that in the differential with corner and High Street shops narrows to the vanishing-point.

  4. There’s no way the average family was spending 20% of its income on food in the 90s. There is a Defra paper on food security (link: http://www.ifr.ac.uk/waste/Reports/DEFRA-Ensuring-UK-Food-Security-in-a-changing-world-170708.pdf) which on page 21 has a graph showing that the % has declined steadily from 20-25% in the 60s to under 10% today, with a slight upturn in the last few years.

    As a farmer I’d like to point out that over the last 20 years the price of wheat in the UK has hardly risen at all, in cash terms. When I left school in 1989 wheat was £90-100/tonne. It rose in the early 90s (due to the pound falling out of the ERM) to a high or about £140/tonne, and then fell back steadily over the next decade, reaching low point in 2006/7 of £60-65/tonne. So the recent rise back to around the £100 mark only takes us back to 1990 prices, and the latest surge to £150 is hardly higher than prices in the mid 90s.

    So next time you’re moaning about the rising price of food, ask yourself if you’d like your wages to be same now as they were in 1990!

  5. Since it’s on the Nurdgaia website we can be pretty confident that he hasn’t grasped the significance of “Chile to South Africa, from New Zealand ..” referring to countries in the Southern Hemisphere.

  6. I don’t know if apples are a good example of the price advantage of imports. Where I live the domestic apples are usually cheaper, or equal in price to the imports. However for about 6 months of the year the imports are much higher in quality. As dearieme says, there is a reason we import them from the Southern Hemisphere.

  7. Pingback: Pay more for food? « SadButMadLad's Blog

  8. I don’t think we should be obsessed about paying more for our food. We should be obsessed about paying less. Paying less for food which doesn’t meet the exacting standard set by the supermarkets. Do we really need tomatoes that are within 1% of a specified size or they are thrown away – literally. Farmer’s aren’t paid for this food that doesn’t meet the standards.

    Supermarkets have specified these exacting standards because it makes their job easier since they only need to have one price for a particular foodstuff. The consumer, given a choice about quality but no choice about price, will always choose the better riper rounder more colourful product. The supermarkets use this in their argument about why they do what do they do, but it’s a false argument.

    If instead farmers were paid for this “lower quality” but still acceptable foodstuff, then they would be making more money. Maybe not at the same margin, but it’s still extra money which they aren’t getting at the moment. And consumers would win as well as those who are having to cut back their spending can still afford their food. Is it really necessary for everyone to have exactly the same quality of food?

  9. DBC Reed,

    Also shopping at supermarkets pretty well makes a car essential.When you factor that in the differential with corner and High Street shops narrows to the vanishing-point.

    Internet home shopping + walk to local shops for the odd extras. Cost you about £300/year, plus you have more time for playing Metroid rather than walking around a shop.

  10. @sobers
    Don’t know whether you saw a Response article by Anthony Bradley in The Guardian of 8th Jan this year.Entitled “The abolition of the Milk Marketing Board did not help us dairy farmers-thousands of farmers were ruined by Mrs Thatcher and rising supermarket power”,it is an eloquent memorial to the 30,000 dairy farms put out of business .If you get rid of state-run intermediaries ,such as the MMB, there is nothing to stop the middlemen dominating the producers,to use old Populist slogans.

  11. @sobers @DBC Reed

    We don’t have farms qua farms. We have farms to provide food for consumers.

    There are some market distortion problems with supermarkets but on the whole their social benefit vastly outweighs any down side – most folk are better off as a result of their efforts.

    The next campaign needs to be for the scrapping of production subsidies for food along with the removal of trade barriers.

  12. Might also inquire as to how Chile, NZ, et al growers are able to provide better appearing and (I assume) equally tasty apples at less (net of shipping) cost?

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