Monday, 4 January 2010

What's For Dinner?

If you think the queues at the supermarket checkout are a pain then you have never queued for food for real. This kind of thing only happens in other places where there is either famine, some sort of breakdown or where food is scarce and expensive. But it has begun to happen in the USA where many people dependent on food stamps are having to learn how to.

On December 25, a good day for it, when very many were feasting and putting away enough calories for a week or two, The Market Oracle blog featured an item by Eric de Carbonnel engagingly titled “Global Food Crisis 2010 Means Financial Armageddon”. In brief he rubbished the US Department of Agriculture spin on 2010 production pointing out that on its own detailed evidence the USA could need imports of food with implications for world markets.

Given what is and is likely to be happening in the wider world, a large subject, he suggests that the margins of supply and demand will shift enough to trigger major price rises that in turn will have substantial economic effects notably on financial systems. The EU has been doing its bit towards causing chaos in European agriculture moving resources from where it is needed to where it is not needed.

As for the UK Defra, the Department for Ruination of Agriculture, it has managed to secure reductions in output in key areas whilst its friends in the retailing and food manufacturing industries have driven down farm incomes and production. They have made up the supplies by importing from cheap labour countries with less demanding regulation food quality. These countries may not be exporting quite as much in the near future.

In the mid 20th Century food expenditure in the developed world was a much higher proportion of household outgoings than at present. Although food prices have gone up in the last forty years they have done so at a much lower rate than either the general rates of inflation or other expenditures. The result has been more money in the pockets of most of the peoples in the richer nations to spend on consumer goods, tourism, and other things.

In just about all the predictions I have seen for 2010 food prices do not figure, and whilst they are bullish about commodities in general, they have not taken on board those in very limited supply, for examples the rare earths critical to many high tech’ products. Because everything has seemed so easy for so long, few people are able to comprehend what it might mean if food costs suddenly revert to the proportion of spending of decades ago, or other centuries.

Quite simply for the average family or group you lose around 20% of your disposable income. This would be bad enough if you had been saving a significant amount for future spending as you might in the 1950’s. If you are already running even modest levels of debt it will mean a major contraction in your lifestyle. Amongst the things that have to change will be what goes in the supermarket trolley and how you will have to use and cost it.

The picture above is a 1950’s Domestic Science class. With the introduction of secondary education for all, it was assumed that to be able to manage in the world of that time youngsters would need to be trained in basic cooking technique and the careful management and costing of food use and budgeting. With the big retailers and big manufacturers dominating the food supply from the 1970’s onward this was all dumped and the colleges that trained the teachers closed, as being old stuff no longer needed and ran counter to modern eating and retailing.

For all the noisy flashy culinary and cooking programmes on the TV there is a generation who mostly know little or nothing of how to deal with basic foods, and have been habituated to waste and easy choice. The younger generation may have to start to learn things their parents never knew and their grandparents may well have forgotten. I would like to make jokes about chickens coming home to roost but it would not be in good taste, indeed worse than your typical imported chicken.

My real fear is that after sixty years I might just be back in a two hour queue at the fish and chip shop on the basis of an uncorroborated rumour that they have had a delivery of fish and fat.

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