VS1 Cloud Blog
Article By: Brooks Bulletin Editor
The past few months have seen several media reports and lamentations by urban pundits about the desirability of a more locally-focused food distribution system. The stories seem to be inspired by the perceived failure of retailers to stock every possible food and household item every day at their stores during the pandemic. We all remember the shock and horror of seeing empty shelves where a mindless variety of toilet paper used to be on display. Luckily that calamity seems to have resolved itself to the satisfying mental comfort of billions in the western world. Less important was that a few shortages developed in some basics like meat, flour and sugar, but the supply system quickly overcame that situation. For all intents, the food supply is back to normal; that being grocery shelves are once again overflowing with an overabundance of food that our spoiled western society expects as a human right. If only the rest of the world even had even a quarter of that supply, they would be grateful.
That didn’t stop urban commentators from suggesting that shortages had developed because a select few giant corporate players dominate our food distribution system. Their answer was that more food should be produced and distributed locally where consumers could go directly, thereby bypassing the evil corporate control of our food system. What a noble 18th-century concept, where folks back then had to scrounge up whatever seasonal food products that might be available from weekly farmers markets or itinerant pedlars. Most farmers back then barely produced enough to feed themselves, what was sold cost city dwellers up to 50% of their income compared to 10% today. Yep, those were the good old days of local food production and distribution.
One is somewhat bemused to see media stories about a local farmer or rancher having built a local network of consumers to buy their vegetables or meat products directly. More power to that entrepreneurial individual, however to thrive, such products need to be priced considerably higher than in retail stores. Most consumers are not prepared to accept such higher costs nor the hassle of the ad hoc local distribution system. Besides, such local producers can only supply a handful of consumers. A typical big-box food store sells more food products in five minutes or less than a local small scale grower can produce in a year. Even if there were fantastic price premiums for small scale local food production, we don’t have the trained growers to grow that food. Interestingly, in reality, few consumers are aware that most of the food that they eat is already locally produced, it’s just not in the quaint manner envisioned by idealistic city writers.
Virtually all the meat, eggs, dairy products, sugar, cereals and vegetable oils consumed in Alberta are grown, processed and distributed locally to consumers. Major produce items like potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms are either grown for the fresh market or frozen for year-round sales are all locally grown here in Alberta. The sophisticated food distribution that has developed over the past 80 years has seen all of those products easily made available to virtually every consumer in this province almost all the time. Yet some media stories would lead you to believe that consumers are clamouring to obtain food directly from local growers. I would suggest that less than a couple of thousand consumers would be interested in going to all that trouble to obtain a limited amount of their food needs. Sure tens of thousands show up at big city farmer’s markets, and that’s great for a few local growers, but that doesn’t even put a dent in the supply needed for the majority of consumers. One can’t help but notice that much of the produce available at big city farmers market actually comes from faraway BC and California. But I digress.
One notes that yes, our food production, processing and distribution has become highly centralized and controlled by major players. But it has evolved that way because the vast majority of consumers everywhere want it that way. They want the low-cost, convenience, availability, quality and food safety that such a system has brought our modern society. If the idealistic local direct food distribution systems envisioned by some deluded advocates actually worked, they would already play a much more significant role in food distribution. The fact is it doesn’t work and never did as history has shown.