Tag: fresh food

The Role of Fruit & Veg In Our Society

I HAD POSTED THIS CONTRIBUTION A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO…THINGS DO NOT CHANGE THOUGH.  THE CURRENT DEBATE HERE IN NEW ZEALAND ABOUT THE NEED FOR A “FOOD IN SCHOOLS” PROGRAMME IS HIGHLIGHTING THAT THE PROBLEM OF PRODUCE PRICE PERCEPTION IS ALIVE AND WELL. BUGGER.

NEAT AND TIDY PRODUCE DISPLAY

NEAT AND TIDY PRODUCE DISPLAY

 

I have discussed fresh produce pricing on a number of occasions – as those who visit here regularly will have noticed.

Well, I had an epiphany last week.  I think I have the answer to the problem of fresh produce pricing…

I was listening to the segment on National Radio where they rattle through the headlines from the New Zealand newspapers around the regions and one headline caught my ear – enough to make me look up the news item in question from the Dominion Post.

So, what are the issues again?

People need to eat fresh fruit and veg.  But the price of fresh produce is too high for people afford, so their health is at risk, according to nutritionists.

Growers need to make a living from growing and supplying fresh produce.  But the price of fresh produce is too low for them to do that, so their livelihood (and our food supply) is at risk, according to growers.

“Somebody” isn’t prepared to pay growers a high enough price for their produce and that “somebody” is being driven by the behaviour of the consumer.

So who is driving this consumer behaviour?  The influences are many and varied, ranging from the mother-in-law, the school, the mommy bloggers, the kids, nutritionists in the media, the consumer’s own perception and so on…

I’m going to stick my neck out here:

the glass ceiling for fresh produce prices exists to a large extent because people like nutritionists persist with pushing the idea that fruit & veg should be cheap!

Here’s my answer, then.

What needs to happen is that the fresh produce industry takes the nutritionists in hand and makes them understand the commercial realities of growing fruit & vegetables, so that the nutritionists’ ability to influence can be harnessed better in correctly position produce on the consumers’ plate.

The Nonsense Continues

I had the weekend edition of the NZ Herald sitting around on the dining room table all weekend, pondering whether I should add my 5 pence worth to the article entitled Fruit, vege bargains at supermarket in theweekend edition. Then I sat down to watch the 6 o’clock news tonight.  First up –the milk price again. The Minister of Agriculture, David Carter,  now suggests that a Parliamentary Select Committee should investigate milk prices.  The CEO of the Consumers Institute made ridiculous comments on camera about a “secret manual” she alleged Fonterra uses to set milk prices and a TV One reporter found that supermarkets sell 2 litres of milk for $3.60 compared to $5.20 at a dairy and $5.60 at a service station. Doh.  Oh really?  Ah, there is a story that has gone off the rails.  That does not fit the intended direction –because we all know its supermarkets which engage in price gauging right?  Carter, luckily for him, was interviewed on Q & A this morning, rather than in the evening.  His “I never buy my milk at the supermarket and I would encourage consumers to shop around” wisdom therefore went unchallenged.  Let’s get some of the facts straight.  Supermarkets are in the volume business which works really well for them with processed food; milk for example.  Milk will always be cheaper in a supermarket  than in a dairy or service station, so please stop wasting time during the news bulletin and instead report the real issues we want to hear about.  When have you last seen a super market chain advertising  milk or bread at special prices or even as a loss leader?  The answer is “you have not” as it simply does not happen. The same goes for eggs by the way. They could, but they typically do not!  Accusing supermarkets on price gauging on those products is therefore an exercise akinto shooting oneself into one’s foot!  Back to the Herald’s fruit & veg story.  At a time of extreme shortages, you can rely on supermarkets to exert pressure to keep the prices down. Not because they want to be good citizens but out of self interest.  They have worked out a few years back that consumers have a pain threshold. When cauliflower prices go beyond $3.99 per head retail, consumers pull the hand break.  Tomatoes at $20 is pipe dream territory of unheard proportions.  Food & Grocery Council CEO Katherine Rich also has a thing or three to learn about the fresh produce value chain, judging by her comments in the NZ Herald story.  Of course, the produce will be fresher at a farmers market – if it has been locally grown and is being sold by the grower himself.  And of course, supermarkets are subject to greater controls and attempt to offer produce of greater uniformity.  And where do we think the produce supermarkets does not buy disappears to, hm? Whilst it is great that we as a society are focusing back on the basics, i.e., the quality and availability of our food and its price, there is a lot of nonsense being talked out there and the sooner that changes the better.

Cavemen and Calculus

I have a team member with a propensity for out of left field utterances.  A recent one got me thinking, especially as it matched a theme I’d been exploring for that presentation at Peking University I mentioned in the previous post.  It went something like this:

“We’re still cavemen trying to live in a 21st century world”

And one of my themes in myPeking speech was about the rate of change in my lifetime, how it is accelerating and methods of learning to cope with the problems this causes.

Whilst I don’t consider myself a caveman, there are times when the rapid rate of change happening everywhere I look does make me wonder if we, homo sapiens, are ready for it from an evolutionary standpoint.  Let’s face it, the human body is not built to withstand travelling above a certain speed.  We are soft flesh over a breakable skeleton.  Yet here we are, able to buy and drive cars that can travel well in excess of that certain speed.

Much of what we do, a caveman would recognise: we live in caves, albeit called houses and with air conditioning; we wear furs, although the clothes we wear come from mammoth stores, as opposed to a woolly mammoth; and we still eat nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables – although what Mrs Cro Magnon’s opinion of supermarkets would be, I dread to think.  So we’re still doing all the same things the cavemen did, we’re just more sophisticated in how we go about it.  We can devise changes in technology far faster than Mother Nature can in humans by evolution, so it’s no wonder the two are increasingly out of step.

How has this rate of change affected our food?
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At the Markets part one – The Imposter

My recent European sojourn found me in Nuremberg – a city that is both famous and infamous.  On the famous side, it is known for its contribution to the arts and Christmas; while for the infamous there’s the trials.

Nuremberg is an old city.  Like many medieval cities, there is a market square in front of the church – and this one is still in use regularly for a busy local farmers’ market.

 

It is very picturesque, with all the stalls resplendent in their candy striped awnings, and probably very much like it has been for centuries.

However, lurking in amongst the stalls trying to look inconspicuous, I came across this:

sushi!

 

I’m not sure how farmer or local this is, but it does show how far some iconic foods have been able to travel from their homeland and become globally normal.

Railway Waggons, TV Shows & Produce

A couple of news items on National Radio caught my attention this morning.  The first one related to Kiwi Rail’s intention to buy more rolling stock from China instead of having the waggons built from scratch in its own workshops in Lower Hutt and Dunedin .  The second item concerned the intended sale of TVNZ’s Avalon Studios.  They also are in Lower Hutt.  Predictably, the supporters of those facilities are getting ready to head for the barricades, suggesting not building one’s own railway waggons or not producing one’s own TV shows makes no economic sense whatsoever, given that a) the competence exists and b) the economic necessity to preserve as many jobs as possible should be obvious to even the most dimwitted inexperienced politician. The counter argument suggests that it makes perfect economic sense to buy goods and services offshore if one’s own capacity is insufficient or if one’s own cost of production cannot match cheaper labour sources offshore.  Chuck a couple of accusations related to xenophobia into the mix, interview a minister or two and the debate takes on a life of its own.

As I was pondering what I was hearing, I could not help but think that there is a connection with the produce industry.   The old colloquial term of market gardener, for example, implies something doesn’t it?  It implies that the individuals concerned produces his or her produce for a market.  Where could one traditionally find market gardeners?  Around the towns.  Where were the markets located? Inside the towns!  Being a market gardener therefore suggests a degree of proximity to the locality where the produce meets the consumer.

Is This Really The Solution?

At the beginning of the 20th century Auckland’s market gardens used to be where the Ellerslie racecourse is today.  As the city grew the gardens shifted to Mangere.  Evidence of that can still be seen between the airport and the Manukau motorway. After the second World War, Pukekohe increasingly gained in importance as Auckland’s fruit and vegie bowl.   These developments played out all across the country to a greater or lesser degree.  A lot of Wellington’s vegetables used to come from Otaki initially.

The produce supply scene is changing on two planes.  Firstly, the corporate supply chains at wholesaler or retailer level distribute parcels of produce around the country based on what is the most efficient source on the day.  Gisborne lettuce can be found all over the country as can South Auckland tomatoes. Growing produce locally is therefore no longer a necessity. Secondly, the volume of imported produce, particularly imported vegetables destined for the process industry, is rising drastically.  On the other hand I saw a Turners & Growers press release recently which announced the company is now the largest exporter of Peruvian asparagus into Japan.

What does this mean?  Ask an economist and he will suggest that the sensible way of going about business is to produce goods and services in the most cost effective way.  And if that is China, so be it.  Sociologists will argue that basic functions like food production need to conducted within spittting distance of the people the food is intended for.  Governments are beginning to to grapple with the concept of Food Security.  History tells us that as societies progress, its members no longer want to perform the more basic job function but are looking for more complex tasks to take on.  Germany invented the term Gastarbeiter in the sixties, guest workers, for the mainly Southern European unskilled labour force which was imported to do the jobs Germans no longer wanted to do.  The Communist regime suffered from the same malaise.  East Germany brought in thousands of North Vietnamese workers for exactly the same reasons.  New Zealand did the same with Pacific Islander in the seventies – and today our industry has the RSE scheme for very similar reasons.

Helen Clark called agriculture and horticulture sunset industries ten years ago and substantially reduced government investment into our industries, wishing us to concentrate on developing high tech export solutions instead.  And yet – horticulture and agriculture are part of the very fabric of our society.  We need to eat to survive.  We need food. How much responsibility do we need to take for this individually apart from doing our hunting & gathering in the local supermarkets? 

The answer, I suggest, lies somewhere in between. As a country we cannot afford to be too reliant on commodity exports.  Yes, prices might be good for a few consecutive weeks, months or even years – but low entry barriers, over- supply and changes to demand will always create a  roller coaster effect .  It is just a question of “when.”  Conversely we cannot afford to go exclusively high tech altogether and import all our food. We can afford this neither financially nor as a society.

What we need then is a mix of sensible commodity production, value adding processing industries and mechanisms which allow us to generate, harvest and market intellectual property along our entire value chain.