Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Isolation not always a curse

Carbon miles, the distance to overseas markets and endless quota restrictions in these protectionist times can leave the New Zealand farmer frustrated at our relative isolation to the world's markets, but in some ways it can be a blessing.
The dying British farmer is facing a David and Goliath battle with the big supermarkets to survive and so far the supermarkets are winning.
Recession and aggressive competition have forced supermarket chains like Tesco's and Sainsbury's to slash the price of fruit and vegetables to meet, they say, 'consumer demand'.
Farmers have been reporting severe bullying tactics with one close to selling up after Tesco's dropped the spud price by NZ $138 per tonne overnight. Most farmers report being paid 50% less than the previous season for their vegetables and most agree it can't continue.
And of course with Europe on their doorstep the supermarkets can take produce from elsewhere at the cost of the British farmer.
The situation is dire, and the consequences may be equally as dire for those of us competing from this side of the world. The reaction, of course, is to protect these farmers and this is where protectionism becomes a major threat once more. As consumers' back pockets dry up food prices fall and despite Gordon Brown's free trade philosophy, the pressure from another suffering sector of the economy may force the Government to help out.
The over-riding problem is the lack of loyalty from British consumers and slick campaigns by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to get people enthusiastic about quality grown home produce may take years before any quantifiable results occur.
The idea is right though - positioning the UK farmers away from commodity products where they can't compete against aggressive European farmers, into quality driven produce may serve them well in years to come. Either that or they die.
But teaching the consumer the value of a head of British broccoli, or the health benefits of eating a free range chicken may take some time when we live in a society that doesn't value its food, and wastes disgracefully in a way previous generations would have shuddered at.
And just because we are isolated it doesn't mean our own domestic market is immune. We also need to be educating on the quality of our food. However, unlike British supermarkets, our own are quite adept at keeping the price up.

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