Friday, September 15, 2006

Relocalization and Retail Food Chains

One of the most important and critically necessary social adjustments to peak oil is relocalization of food security. Today the food on your tables has travelled an average of 2500km to get there. The dishes and the table on which they sit and the various equipment and tools involved in the preparation of that meal on the table have travelled an average of over 6000km to get to your home. The food production and distribution system on which you depend to feed yourself and your family has become a truly global system which is critically dependent on oil and other fossil fuels.

Even over these past several years the energy costs imbedded in that global food system have risen dramatically. There are periodic cost respites, slight dips in a steadilly increasing cost upslope. But even at this stage we are a long way from peak food cost. We will probably look back at these times of expensive food as the "good old days." The reason, of course, is that peak oil and peak food cost are not synonymous. If we arrive at peak oil still totally dependent on a global food system then peak oil is the starting point for an exponential rise in food costs that will turn food into a luxury item.

We cannot continue, over the long term to be so critically dependent on a global food system that is going to falter under the weight of future skyrocketing oil prices. And in this case the long term will probably be measured in years, not decades. If we are to feed our families as we slide down the downslope on the other side of peak oil, the cost of food must become the cost of food. The greater the energy cost component there is in that food, based on distributing it around the world, the more the cost of food is going to follow the rising cost of energy as oil moves toward depletion. Relocalization of the food supply, so that the food on your table is produced (including grown) within 100 miles of you, is the only realistic and sustainable way to take the energy cost out of your food costs. The food in your local grocery store/supermarket must increasingly come from local suppliers, local growers, local processors, local co-ops.

Ideally the bulk of the food on your table would be grown and processed and preserved by you, either on your own land or as part of a local gardening co-op. There are, unfortunately, many legislative hurdles in the way of this happening in urban areas on a large scale. That will remain the case until local municipal governments adopt a stance supportive of peak-oil preparation and undertake the process of changing municipal codes to re-orient towards mixed agriculture/residential zoning and move away from the fixation on manicured lawns. This will take time and probably will not occur in most municipalities until the reality of peak oil is glaringly obvious and the voters are not only receptive to such changes but demanding them.

In the interim, however, much of the relocalization could be accomplished through your local grocery store or supermarket acquiring the food on their shelves from local producers and processors. Though that would make a tremendous contribution to local food security, it is not going to happen under present practices and policies. Most food retailer chains are contractually obligated to their current food suppliers. This help them keep their prices down, at least helps them keep their costs down. Whether or not those cost savings are passed on to customers is another issue.

A key part of the contractual arrangement with the chain's suppliers is the issue of exclusivity or market share. The chain store is contractually obligated to buy certain percentages of their shelf stock from that supplier, to place that stock in specific shelf locations at specific heights with measured distance from particular competitors. A key part of that market share obligation that the food retail chains must commit to is to not acquire product from local growers/producers. The food crops produced by the local farmers basically cannot be sold into the local community but must be channeled into the food processing/distribution system through which it may eventually, but probably will not, make its way back into local food stores.

Probably the most critical challenge in relocalization of the food supply, therefore, is to be able to undo the contractual agreements that prevent local food retailers from independently acquiring their product from local growers and producers. This will probably require a serious amount of local public pressure. It may also require municipal governments to require local food retailers who wish to sell food within their jurisdiction to acquire a certain proportion of their product (a proportion that should increase over time) from local producers and suppliers.

Such changes would, initially at least, probably increase the local cost of food. This will be partly artificial but most certainly partly real. The retailer would, through these changes, lose much of their advantage of volume buying. But as the global oil and energy costs grow and the energy cost component in the food supply grows, the energy cost advantages of local supply will begin to kick in and the growing costs of food out of the global food system will surpass local costs and local supply will become an advantage. Over time it will become a critical necessity as well.

No comments: