The Food Game

by Jan

The further we progress, the more apparent becomes the wisdom of the Masters of the Universe in describing the food markets as a game of musical chairs. The most perceptive analysis the trader can do is to sit around until someone else believes it too, because the object of the game is not just to faithfully purchase, say, soya beans, but to do it before everyone else does. Value is not just inherent in the soya beans, but must be perceived as having value by others.

This implies that in trading, one must develop a sense of timing. One could read a recipe on how long it takes to cook soya beans, or trade them, but it wouldn’t teach you as much as being thrown into a kitchen and told to get on with it.

That’s about it really. Some traders and retailers want their goods seasonally; some want to interact with interest rates, exchange rates, future contracts, and tax advantages. Some become obsessed with the future of technology, and others just want the nice old-fashioned romance of organically pure produce.

If you are selling the right product at the wrong time, you’re still right, but you will have to wait a long time before the market readjusts in your favour. This is better than coming in late, and even better than being on the dance floor when the music stops.

If what you’re doing as a trader or retailer doesn’t seem to be working, the game may not be on, though the brokers continue to send you recommendations to buy or sell. As a cautionary note, this game is characterized by international intrigue, marketing and public relations skill, lust, greed, piracy, and domestic politics. The players are multinational chemical companies, agri-businesses, supermarket chains, consumer organisations, trade commissions, as well as politicians and scientists with the vision of seeing their names up in neon lights for posterity.

It’s a private game, where the results are pre-ordained. Consumers are meant to lose so that the big players can win. This is done by producers and manufacturers omitting to ask them what they want in their food products. If market research was undertaken to find out, they would be affronted by the inconvenience of the results.

Also, there has been no real public debate in Australia or New Zealand regarding the wider issue of safe foods. You can bet it would be more likely if the consumers had access to reliable information; they would then understand that consuming food is a small area of their lives, which they can control.

However there are structural factors which have a large impact, such as the role of marketing, which includes advertising and public relations. There are economic, class and cultural aspirations, as well as food choice, which are circumscribed by the lines available at retail outlets.  Another important factor is lack of knowledge about origins of food and its preparation.

Food taboos, as a form of control, came about because, historically, people learnt the hard way that some foods killed their friends and families. This knowledge became widespread, and so did the application of possible antidotes. The point is that they had to find out for themselves, and pass this knowledge around, bush telegraph-style. This was the precursor of consumer watchdog groups.

Over time, our western lifestyles changed. As a result of industrialisation, we live more sedentary lives, and not all of us enjoy a high income and stress-free lives.

We eat more feast-day foods everyday, as well as too much fat, sugar and salt, according to nutritionists.

There is now quite a distance between food producers and consumers. Consumers have little or no knowledge about the food they eat. In the past, chefs have used artifice in the preparation of foods, which has engendered distrust in the consumer who thinks, “What are they trying to hide?”.  In turn, the consumer has become used to food being disguised, and so a dependency has been created on artifice and appearance.

It has become advantageous for producers to maintain this knowledge gap, so that their product is not questioned.

With the industrialisation of food production, the range of crops and stock has been reduced to almost a monoculture. Six or seven decades ago, when organic production was so normal that it wasn’t called organic, the variety of crops and animals would have been sustainable, and reasonably self-sufficient. Since then, short cuts, chemicals and quick fixes have become the norm, so that now, organic farming is perceived as unconventional.

These practices are pragmatic and expedient in the short-term only. For example, manufacturers of pesticides and herbicides have created a dependency because their products are easy to use, cheap, high-yielding, and have a better appearance. Farmers are squeezed by banks to increase production in order to service debt. They are also squeezed by meat companies and retailers to take low prices, which forces farmers to cut the costs of production, and keep the shareholders happy. Farmers are also feeding their animals foods manufactured from dubious sources. All these practices are aided by marketers who are paid to put the best gloss on the products, and support the artificial appearance. Millions of dollars are invested to maintain this as the status quo.

Alongside the snappy marketing and efficient production methods, disasters and scandals relentlessly occur. Just round up all the acronyms: DDT, BSE, CJD, GE or GM foods, as well as spray drift, are symbolic of what’s wrong with intensive farming. In the public’s mind, if only they knew, the concept of animals feeding on products made of themselves is an unnatural distortion, or a malaise, in itself.

Farmland is now being used to grow crops for biofuels, a questionable use of a good resource.

In the light of this, there seems to be lack of consideration for what and how much food we actually waste. This drives food prices higher; the price spikes are coming from widespread speculation and volatility, so food commodities are viewed as an asset class. And at the moment, the grain companies do insider trading because they’re hedging their risk as traders of a commodity. They often claim that there are glass walls between their investment divisions and their trading business.

The Australia-US Free Trade Agreement has unfortunate side effects. The US government has identified some Australian agricultural and environmental policies as barriers to trade which they want changed, e.g. labelling of genetically engineered food. The US government also want an investor-state dispute process, which would give US companies the right to sue Australian governments for damages if health or environmental laws harmed their investments. The investor-state dispute processes give corporate investors rights to challenge government laws and policy and sue governments for damages if they believe their investments have been harmed. These disputes are heard by trade tribunals which prioritise the interests of the investor, rather than to the public interest.

This alone has made consumers realise that they have been duped, and has caused some consumers to question what they’re eating. When there’s a crisis of risk versus trust, consumers will naturally search for alternative foods, there is an increase in consumer awareness, and a demand for labelling. This is the contemporary equivalent of the food taboo.

All these things to consider before the food arrives on your plate.