Friday, 25 April 2008


With the prices of most things escalating at an ever-increasing rate, goods are on the verge of being sifted into two heaps based on their consumption of oil. Those goods and services requiring enormous inputs of energy are starting to reflect their true cost, as the price of oil rises, and will no longer fit through the sieve that we use daily to sort out what we can afford to buy and what we can't. Theoretically, goods produced with less energy input will not rise as dramatically in price and we will find them becoming a viable and, more and more often, the most economical alternative and consequently ending up coming through the sieve into our shopping baskets.

Let's look at food. On the outskirts of Adelaide is a fertile area, once river flats and still prone to flooding in extreme weather, which has always been the food bowl of South Australia. We are very lucky to have this only maybe 15 km from the city centre. There, people like Tony Scarfo have always grown nearly all the vegetables we need for our city and state. In recent years, with new free-trade agreements popping up between our government and just about anyone that will sign up with us, we have been inundated with cheap food, especially from China and America because labour in China is cheap and American agriculture is subsidised by the government and ours is not.

The local food-producers have been squeezed to the point where many have left the industry and their land has been sold and subdivided into houses. I feel very tight in the chest when I drive out that way and see all that beautiful soil being covered with concrete. Sacrilegious and so short-sighted; I want to shout from the roof-tops and usually bombard any passengers in my car with my thoughts until we get to greener pastures, so to speak! Tony's organic market garden has few inputs that come from far away - he saves all his own seeds, he buys manure from local farms and makes compost from it and from his own green crops and weeds etc. It is labour that means Tony's vegetables, grown on just 4 acres, have been slightly more expensive than the cheapest non-organic ones. He employs some local men to weed and to plant out seedlings and his mother helps with tending the seed beds. The only oil involved is in his delivering the food to the 3 or so places that sell his vegetables in his ute, twice a week.

As fuel becomes more expensive fuel-miles becomes a considerable cost - this means not just transporting the final product to the destination of sale but, as well, anything made from oil used in its production - artificial fertilisers, manufacture and running of machinery for sowing, harvesting and processing, as well as disposal of wastes, the running of huge refrigerated warehouses, production and distribution of advertising materials and so on down the line. These costs are already filtering down to the consumer and I notice at the central market, that I can buy Tony's beautiful, local, organic broccoli for the same price as oil-rich, non-organic broccoli from interstate. If you currently buy packaged food, which I don't, your expenses are sky-rocketing while mine are not (even if I didn't grow nearly all our own vegetables). Local is becoming cheap again. (sigh...)

This is an unforeseen way to help speed up the uptake of local, energy-efficient food and other products without the public having to actually do anything intelligent! It may just happen to be the most wonderfully simple solution, at least for us here in Adelaide and for that beautiful soil just north of the city. I cannot give any more time to this now and I want to really delve into these ideas in more depth but this is a start and I will get back to it again in the future, looking more widely at the effects of energy consumption on how we live.


Anonymous said...

You're right. I think it's quite sad and silly about the way we do things sometimes. Consumers should be more aware about what they are buying and should understanding the importance of buying local and supporting local.

gardengal said...

I worry too, not only about the loss of farm land but the loss of industry and skills.
We've lost so much to overseas, like say, knitting mills, and we're going to want it back soon! We're going to feel very silly one day.

Anonymous said...

Early on, even as a non-vegetable grower, there seemed enough information about to concern me greatly. The cost of producing and shipping food to my home was the first reason I considered learning to grow vegetables. The more I read, the more I realised that the most worrying thing was that the very availability of food was going to be a huge potential problem. So, I keep day I might learn to grow a decent carrot.

Anonymous said...

You know I don't want to diminish in any way the significance of recent price rises, but in many ways I have yet to feel the full impact of them for the reasons you just laid out here.

I'm vegetarian, and mostly eat local foods. These aren't very energy intensive, and haven't gone up in price very much. For example a typical piece of broccoli has probably gone from about €1 to €1.15. Yes wheat prices have been going up, and instead of paying €0.35 for a bag of Italian pasta, it's now €0.45. A typical dinner for 2 still only costs about €4, perhaps up from €3.50 a few years ago.

Okay, I drive a car frequently and that's become more expensive. Also you have to take into account the strength of the euro as a currency. Still, living a lifestyle without a huge carbon footprint has really softened recent price increases for me.

One thing I have noticed is the local farmer friend I have, where I buy my cheese and eggs. He has just raised his prices sharply. His farm also operates without many energy or other inputs, so this is just profit for him. He is just taking advantage of other food price increases.

I'm very happy to see this price increase, because his farm is on the verge of bankruptcy.

The thing I'm afraid of in the long run is governments have a tendency to protect important industries with subsidies during the times of price rises. For example in the US a McDonalds cheeseburger costs about US$13 to produce, and typically sells for less than US$1. This difference in price is made up with government subsidies. I could only see these subsidies going up in the future to protect the price of the cheeseburger.

Kate said...

There are currently no such subsidies in Australia - a sore point for some farmers and manufcturers but maybe a good thing for the future of local, organic food. Lets hope the cheeseburger gets the rejection it deserves, Patrick.