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Profits, speculators and Mother Nature conspire to raise prices

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 24, 2012

Have we become too accustomed to food being there, on-tap, 24/7, in pristine form at rock bottom prices from our 'friendly' superstores?

Have we become too accustomed to food being there, on-tap, 24/7, in pristine form at rock bottom prices from our 'friendly' superstores?

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NFU spokesman Ian Johnson fears already soaring food bills could get even higher

How about this to get you choking on your cornflakes?

Every day the global population increases by 200,000 and there won't be one of them that doesn't want feeding!

An article leapt out at me during a recent on-line trawl from The Observer headlined: 'High food prices are here to stay – and here's why'.

The thrust was that droughts, floods, oil prices, accelerating demand from the world's new 'rich' in the Far East and, by no means least, commodity speculation (and more on that later) were combining to produce a vicious upward thrust in food prices, with those in Britain, as you won't need me to tell you, rising faster than most.

Actually it was the first reader posting after the article which particularly caught my eye. It read: 'A comment from a Kosovan I once met: We all got along fine when times were good – until there wasn't enough to go round'.

Says it all, really, doesn't it?

Because, other than the decreasing numbers who were around during the war and its immediate aftermath, there's nobody in this country who really has any notion of food being anything other than plentiful and cheap, which may account for the millions of tonnes of the stuff we throw away, an average of £270-worth a year per UK family, according to a recent survey by frozen food giant Birds Eye.

But it's a short step from profligacy to panic because, whenever there's the faintest whiff of anything running short or any impending 'interruption' to supply, such as Christmas Day, supermarket shelves are emptied faster than locusts moving through Egypt!

So have we become too accustomed to food being there, on-tap, 24/7, in pristine form at rock bottom prices from our 'friendly' superstores?

They have loved to lure us in and away from their rivals with the blandishments of 'BOGOFS' – buy one, get one free – or, classically, 'loss-leaders' like milk, often bought daily and rendering purchasers open to other temptations once in the store.

But, here's the rub, they don't particularly want to have to pick up the tab for their 'largesse' at the expense of their shareholders and it is not unknown for them to pass the price-cutting 'parcel' back to the poor guy who has got nobody else to pass it to – the farmer.

Even this cold-blooded 'capitalism' pales into insignificance, however, compared with our old 'chums', the aforementioned speculators.

Apparently since regulation was rolled back in the late '90s, the hedge funds have spotted a milch cow and the share of the food market owned by speculators has increased from 12% to 61% with the amount of financial speculation on food nearly doubling in the last five years from $65 billion to $126 billion.

That's before you factor in Mother Nature and her possible reaction to global warming, which is where the Jet Stream that you will have heard so much about in this summer's weather forecasting comes in.

It is a current of air travelling eastwards around the upper northern hemisphere, separating the cold, wet weather to the north from the warmer, drier weather to the south.

Along it are huge meanders called Rossby waves. As the Arctic heats up, the meanders slow down and become steeper – the weather gets stuck.

And for 'stuck' weather read 'extreme' weather. If the jet stream is jammed to the north of you, your weather stays hot and dry; if it's lodged to the south, as it has been for us this year, the rain just keeps falling, the ground becomes saturated and rivers burst their banks.

This summer, the UK and US were on opposite sides of stuck meanders with harvests in both countries savaged by different extremes.

With a chilling scenario like this leading to rocketing feed-price increases for poultry, pig and cattle farmers, the last thing they need is the supermarkets bearing down on them, too, and are warning that they need these challenges to be reflected in their share of the 'cake'.

They don't particularly want retail food prices to rise because they are consumers, too, often on pretty tight household budgets, but, as one never hears about any supermarket profit warnings, presumably there's some wriggle room there without necessarily having to stick it to shoppers.

Perhaps the one glimmer of light is that we still have the productive capacity here in the South West, with thousands of non-farming jobs depending on it, despite the Blair government in general and Mrs Margaret Beckett in her role as Defra secretary in particular eschewing British agriculture in favour of wunderkind bankers and asserting that all our food could be imported.

Because if farmers here are forced out of business by higher production costs and inadequate returns and we start depending on those further afield to fill our fridges, what seems like a big bill now may seem like a bargain basement later.

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