The price wars of big supermarkets are not only destroying farming families, they’re revealing a community willing to sacrifice animal welfare, healthy land and good food quality just to save a dollar.
What is it about cheap food that blinds us? What’s going on in our heads that lets us pay a premium for a smart phone or designer label clothes, but with food we want the absolute cheapest?
Over decades our spending habits have told food retailers we love cheap chicken, eggs and pork. In miserable indoor animal factories chickens and pigs are bred, fed and medicated to grow and lay at the fastest possible rate to deliver the cheapest ‘product’. The resulting industry is so concentrated that a few large companies control everything, from prices to farmer to the breed of chook that can be farmed.
Beautifully packaged for us on the shelves of our local Coles or Woolworths, the curtain is firmly shut on how the products of industrial agriculture arrive so cheaply in our shopping trolleys. If we had to buy our bacon and eggs directly from a confined animal operation, could we honestly front the huge array of fattening pens and laying cages, and look brutalised animals and an underpaid farmer in the eye while we hand over a pittance for the ingredients for our Sunday breakfast?
To keep costs down to make our $1 a litre milk possible, the milk factory can legally mix in up to 12 per cent waste permeate to full cream milk. Permeate is the waste product from manufacturing low fat milks. Milking cows are bred to be more productive and selected for larger and larger udders. There’s a limit before a cow’s udder painfully stretches to cause greater rates of mastitis and other infections requiring drugs to maintain the cow’s ability to produce milk fit for human consumption.
Low milk prices means only the dairy farmers with ‘super-herds’ of up to 1000 cows can maintain a viable business, which explains why 30 Queensland dairy farmers walked off their farms in the last 12 months. It is impossible for a young dairy farmer to buy their own farm without taking on enormous debt.
Similarly the effect of an 80 cent iceberg is felt from the local fruit and veg shop, right back to the farm. When the two big supermarkets halve the price of lettuce, the independent supermarkets and local fruit and veg shops must follow and the call goes down the supply chains to all lettuce farmers to drop the price on iceberg.
There’s no award wage for a farmer; they simply work more for less money. To grow more lettuces more cheaply on the same bit of land, soils are worked harder and harder, fertility drops and more salt-based fertilisers are added to compensate. The weak plants growing in depleted soil need more sprays to protect them from pests and diseases, therefore more excess nitrogen and pesticide residues wash off farms and into creeks, rivers and oceans. The unintended results are polluted waterways, wildlife deaths, algal blooms and dead zones in estuaries.
Since the 1970s Australia has lost 40-50,000 farmers and now the age of the average farmer is well over 50. What son or daughter wants to take over the family farm when they see their parents and grandparents working for less and less and not being able to look after themselves, their health, their soils or their animals humanely? The more we squeeze farmers, the more they leave the farm or take their own lives in despair. When there’s no one left to take over the farm what are we going to eat – supplements?
The government and the ACCC need to step in and stop the predatory pricing practices of Coles and Woolworths. As consumers we need to start thinking beyond our wallets and start buying the meat, milk and produce we know is grown humanely, sustainably and bought at a fair price from a local retailer. We need to reconnect with the people who grow our food so that it becomes inconceivable to buy food that requires people, animals and the land to be sacrificed.
There are convenient and affordable options allowing us to get closer to where our food comes from. Talk to your local fruit shop owner about where they get their produce from and why. Find a local online ethical food box delivery scheme. Join or start a neighbourhood food co-op. Shop at farmers markets. And to really, really reconnect we can grow our own food, keep some animals at home and become farmers ourselves.
Originally published by Online Opinion a not-for-profit e-journal providing a forum for public social and political debate about current Australian issues.