Check out this ad snapped on a recent trip to the local supermarket. A buff, young bloke stands with his arms wide to embrace his remarkable achievement.
He has grown another nutritious crop of vegetables for the table; bok choy in this particular case.
The supermarket chain captures the image and puts a blue New South Wales sticker in the corner to remind us the farmer is a local.
Good on him.
A warm feeling creeps up like I am wrapped in a safety blanket. I know I will be fed with healthy, nutritious food thanks to strong dudes like this one.
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, had nothing much to do with bok choy or fresh vegetables.
It was all about putting the retailer front and centre.
All my newly warm insides were thanks to the retailer supporting our local farmers to bring me the food I need to keep me healthy and well.
By showing the farmer in the store he becomes a member of the retail team. Customers are being told that food comes from the supermarket and not the paddock. The retailer is attempting to convince the neural ganglia that send signals from my stomach that they are both 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 picture of the bok choy grower, was a special offer in the vegetable aisle—a net of onions on sale for $1.
That is pristine, firm onions for 15 cents 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?
Figured it out yet?
Well here is what is wrong.
The reality is that farmers cannot supply quality produce sold out of the supermarket at 15 cents unless they are selling to one buyer who runs a monopoly over them.
What is wrong is that the smiling farmer with his contract with a single retailer for bok choy is walking a tightrope of viability.
His production system is on a sharp edge of balance between costs and returns. For example, if fertiliser prices rise by 20%, then he goes out of business.
The supermarket might pay this particular grower for his image but the hold retailers have on the supply chain squeezes everyone in it. Our buff friend isn’t the only supplier and they all must dance to the tune of the six-continent food supply chain that squeezes every cent of profit at every step.
It is tough being at the wrong end of that chain.
15 cents for an onion!
Give me strength.
Market failure hiding in the advert
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 enormous 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. They have few choices but to skimp on the fertiliser and hope the soil can let go of a few more tons of precious nitrogen.
Humanity has a 22 trillion-a-day kilocalories challenge. 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 is squeezed on price to push his soil to the limit.
And another thing, most Australian farmers are over 50, many with a delightful paunch, but we will talk about that another time.
Photo by Alloporus
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 bok choy or onions. You have to grow them somewhere.
The only way this can happen at 15 cents an onion is if the farmer has mined the natural capital in the soil. This works for a time but soon enough the nutrients are mined and yield declines.
If it were just yield that would be difficult but reversible. The real problem with mining nutrients is that it tends to take soil carbon away with it and results in soil degradation. Then the soil becomes dirt and grows nothing.
What do we eat then?