Food prices in France are so high that protestors are taking direct action. (Radio 4 have been reporting on this a lot so no doubt www.bbc.co.uk has more info if you want to look it up). The protestors resent the profits made by supermarkets at the expense of both their employees and those buying from them. I heard over the weekend that basics – meat and pasta were the cited examples – are now prohibitively expensive. Protestors are going into supermarkets and giving away food to people. They have not been arrested at time of writing, because of a law dating back to Napoleon that entitles shoppers to try before they buy.
All of our food production depends on oil. Agriculture involves tractors. Everything in the supermarkets is moved around by lorry at the very least. Fuel prices impact on food prices, directly. Taxes on fuel increase food prices. In the UK, value added tax adds to the burden of cost. While I am no fan of anything that encourages profligate use of fossil fuels, the increasing difficulty for poor people to eat well, is alarming. In Western cities there are food banks for those who cannot afford to buy food, and hunger is a genuine issue. This is both shocking and inexcusable, especially when you consider how much food our societies routinely throw away needlessly.
In Somalia, there is famine. I gather that the western enthusiasm for quinoa as a foodstuff means that in its south American countries of origin, the price of this essential foodstuff has been raised such that poor people can no longer afford it.
A big part of the problem is that food production is an industry. We leave it to ‘market forces’ to sort everything out, held internationally by the insane belief that markets are somehow a fair and reasonable way of solving everything. It all comes down to supply and demand, right? Except that it doesn’t. Markets are all about short term profit. They aren’t a system that’s going to plan for long term problem solving, or dealing with the challenges of climate change. Currently food supply is part of the problem, not the solution. Market forces will not show compassion to the starving, or help people in France who can no longer afford pasta.
Most of our food, in Europe, is not produced locally. Where we source from developing countries, we still pay them far too little, for all that the fair trade movement has tried to improve this. Supermarkets squeeze domestic producers so that they are barely viable. Farming in the UK is not in a good way. The profits go to the companies and their shareholders, and the big supermarkets make a lot of money. They do it on everyone else’s backs. We’ve been seduced by their apparent convenience, we’ve forsaken the small, local shops and the local producers, stripping essential services out of rural communities along the way. We just get in our cars and drive to the supermarket. Lo and behold, they now have a strangle hold on the food market, we depend on them, the alternatives have all but vanished in many places, we have to drive to them and the prices of food have risen dramatically in the last few years.
This is a situation that we, and our immediate ancestors, have all helped to create, and if we want to change it, we are going to have to do that collectively as well. If the price on fuel came down, food prices might go down too. Might. Do we think the supermarkets will keep a little extra for themselves? I think we can assume they would, in such circumstances. Perhaps the French protestors have the right answer. I’ve no idea what would happen to anyone trying to do that in the UK.
If you want to protest, if you want to do your revolutionary bit, buy something, anything, from somewhere other than a supermarket. Often there are frighteningly few options, but if you can get a thing, anything, straight from the producer, do it.