Food security – what’s wrong with this ad

As consumers, we are at the mercy of market forces. The prices we pay for our food and the produce available are determined by complex supply chains that start with the natural capital on the farm…

Check out this ad snapped on a recent trip to the local supermarket. 

farmer displays his produce

A handsome, young bloke stands with his arms wide to embrace his achievement, another nutritious crop of vegetables for the table. 

Good on him, I think. A warm feeling creeps up on me as though I am wrapped in a safety blanket. Thanks to strong dudes like this one, I know I am going to be fed with healthy nutritious food. 

No doubt the ad, which also appeared as a full-page spread in the Sunday magazines, would have cost several hundred thousand dollars to run has nothing much to do with bok choy or even fresh vegetables for that matter. 

It is all about putting the retailer front and centre. 

By showing the farmer as a member of the retail team customers are reminded that food comes from the supermarket and not the paddock. The retailer is now the supplier and the grower.

The messaging appears to be about fresh food, from local farms grown by young and, dare I say, virile farmers who may be in search of a wife. But really it is about the retailer being the source of our food security.

Is there anything wrong?

So what is wrong with this particular ad beyond the obvious sexism?

Here is a hint. 

Not far from the newspaper stand was a special in the vegetable aisle — a net of onions on sale for $1.

That is pristine, firm onions for 15c each.

Good food at great prices. It’s enough to close down the agencies on Madison Avenue. 

Who needs advertising when the prices are this cheap and the produce so enticing?

The reality is that farmers cannot supply quality produce sold out of the supermarket at 15c unless they are selling to one buyer who runs a monopoly over them. 

What is wrong is that the smiling farmer is actually walking a tightrope of viability. If fertilizer prices rise by 20% then he goes out of business. 

Market failure

The market is failing him and his fellows.

The profiteering opportunities and perverse competition of a retail duopoly (two supermarket chains supply most of the food to households across NSW) create huge risks for Australian production systems. Running at the price margin is a challenging way to run any business but in farming the corner-cutting and frugality severely limits sustainability.

It is well known that farmers look after their land best when they are doing well. When they are under pressure they tend to push the land harder to make ends meet.  

Humanity is at the point where we cannot afford such structural risk. We need every acre of productive land to produce and to remain productive.

The message of food security provided by friendly supermarket advertising is false. It fails to take into account the risk that the farmer takes on when he has only one buyer of his produce.

And another thing, most Australian farmers are over 50, many with a delightful paunch, but we will talk about that another time.

What sustainably FED suggests

The economist would say that this low price marketing hype is just the market doing what the market does. If the farmer goes out of business, then so be it. Another producer will appear.

What would you say to the economist?

Well, you can’t make onions. You have to grow them somewhere.

The only way this can happen at 15c is if the farmer has mined the natural capital in the soil.

Hero image modified from a photo by Lars Blankers on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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