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Consumer plays no small role: it’s Big

June 5, 2008 - “We have met the enemy and they are us!” The phrase is commonly used in sports, by political pundits and originally by a cartoon character of the 1960s. Yet it so aptly applies to the widespread conditions in which we find ourselves today.


June 5, 2008
By Ralph Pearce

   “We have met the enemy and they are us!”

   The phrase is commonly used in sports, by political pundits and originally by a cartoon character of the 1960s. Yet it so aptly applies to the widespread conditions in which we find ourselves today.

   In media reports about the current food crisis, the usual suspects are rounded up and noted as visible culprits. Farm producers often top the list for earning more money than they have in the past, buyers and speculators are called to answer for artificially driving up the price of commodities, and the expanding middle class in countries like China and India are cited for daring to want more and better food.

   My question is, what role does the good ole’ North American consumer play in this twisted little drama?

   “We have met the enemy and they are us!”

   In the urban press, headlines wail about higher food prices…everywhere. In the Phillippines, word is that armed guards are having to patrol docks and shipping depots to protect stores of rice. At the other end of the spectrum news reports out of Toronto alert the public that pizzerias and bakers are having a tough time coping with the value of flour, brought on by spikes in the price of wheat.

   Call me hard-hearted towards millers and bakers, but I have tough time taking these reports seriously.  When I can buy two medium, three-item pizzas for less than $20.00, and feed a family of four, plus one or two lunches the day after, I’m a little sceptical about prices being that high.  If I have to pay an extra 25 to 30 cents for a gourmet loaf of bread, do I really need to call CTV or Global?

   Recently, there was a concern voiced that too many growers -at least here in Ontario -are switching to corn, wheat and soybeans, leaving the small grains processors to grapple with decreasing supplies. The theory is that prices for quality barley, oats and rye in Eastern Canada will jump in the next six to 12 months, depending on availability from other countries of the world.

   Again, maybe I’m being too harsh, but there is a cheap food policy which exists in the hearts and minds of many in the agri-food sector yet is not readily acknowledged by the government.  And it has done for processors what the notion of free health care has done for the overall fitness level of the average Canadian: it has made them lazy.  The average consumer is now so accustomed to paying so little for the convenience factor associated with their food  that any rise in price is seen as excessive, unnecessary and undoubtedly worth a call to the local newspaper or the CBC.

   It seems the processors and millers are just beginning to realize that if they want consistent supply of adequate quality, they too will have to pay more.

   Somewhere in all of this is that ‘e’ word that our politicians exemplify at so many turns: Entitlement.

   Consumers want cheap food prices to be maintained, and it seems in the past decade that they have convinced processors that it is in their best interests to carry the same torch.  Which is why many of them, like the pizzerias and bakers, are their own worst enemies when it comes to pandering to ‘the lowest price is the law’ theory.

    “We have met the enemy and they are us!”

   The bottom line is that Canadian consumers -and those south of the border -have had a pretty good run of cheap food.  We celebrated Food Freedom Day on February 3rd this year: just 34 days for the average Canadian to earn enough to purchase his or her food for the entire year.  In spite of increased prices at the grocery store -or the burger pit down the street  -our percentage of disposable income spent on food is still one of the lowest in the world.

    When Ron Bonnett was president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, he pointed out that farm producers did a remarkable service for the general public. Were it not for their skill and expertise, more of the general populace would be unable to afford trips to the Carribean, undertake extensive home renovations or purchase that new car every third year.  It is the money they do not spend on food that allows them to strengthen the economy by purchasing reclining chairs and kitchen units for the backyard.

    It’s hard to feel sorry for people who complain about the ‘skyrocketing price of food’ when so much of the advertising in the mainstream media is targeted at spending on wants and not needs.  Granted, there are those on fixed incomes who struggle constantly, and a 25 cent increase in the price of a loaf of bread may be a considerable challenge.  Yet we seldom focus on those individuals or the masses in developing countries who <b>are<b> struggling to make ends meet.

   More often than not, it really is ‘All about Us’.

   By the way, did I mention that “We have met the enemy and they are us!”?