The hidden price of discounting fresh fruit and vegetables

We take for granted cheap and plentiful fruit and vegetables and “forget” about shortages. AAP

How should we consider the potential broader ramifications of Coles’ recent promise to reduce by 50% the price of fresh fruit and vegetables?

In the face of cheap fruit and vegetables, it is hard to take seriously concerns about our future food security and health. After all, why worry about tomorrow when fresh, seasonal, healthy food is so cheap today?

However, food security requires reliable supply, access and distribution of nutritionally sound food. While Coles promotes the price-cuts as a win-win for producers and consumers, claiming they have helped farmers offload stock that would otherwise go to waste, the current state of overproduction demonstrates the very volatility of our food supply.

It is worth keeping in mind the bigger picture to this debate. In recent years concerns about the potential impact of climate change on future food security, rising concerns about the health impact of artificial chemicals and a growing obesity epidemic have increasingly politicised what we eat and how it is grown.

The rise of a global industrial agriculture system and world food economy has intensified the disconnect between people and the food they consume, rendering invisible the pathways food travels before arriving on our plates.

At the same time, this food system and the supermarkets it supplies have enabled cities to thrive by freeing people from the constraints of food production. But this has resulted in people in urban populations losing the knowledge of how to produce our own food. This in part has also led to a loss of cooking knowledge, an over-reliance on convenience food and an increase in obesity and related health concerns.

While we are not suggesting that everyone needs to know how to grow food to counteract these issues, it seems that our growing disconnection from food, and loss of knowledge about its production – the lottery of weather, the seasonal requirements and market demands — is fuelling many of these problems.

The breaking of the drought and other favourable weather conditions have produced an abundance of some produce in some areas. As consumers in NSW pay less than $2 a kilo for tomatoes, pears, cucumbers and peaches at Coles this week, memories of paying upwards of $12 a kilo for bananas following Cyclone Larry may start to fade.

Memories may be even more readily erased of the broader global context when in 2008 and 2011 the rising cost of food led to riots and political instability in many nations, not to mention that tens of thousands of people that went hungry.

In times of plenty, the food crises of recent history seem to be readily forgotten. This kind of “forgetting” is ably supported by the industrial agricultural system in developed nations such as Australia.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council’s 2011 State of the Industry report shows that we have one of the world’s most concentrated retail environments. The big supermarkets encourage shoppers to expect year-round availability of fresh produce at reasonable prices. In fact, research indicates that the majority of shoppers could be classified as “budget conscious”, concerned primarily with price. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the “average” Australian household spends $17 per week on fresh fruit and vegetables. With the price cuts this $17 dollars may stretch further, but at what other cost?

The supermarket shopper’s focus on price suggests the majority invest little concern in bigger picture issues related to issues of food security, ethical food production and trade and health.

But we should beware of being lulled into a false sense of security at a time when we need to be planning for our food futures.