The True Cost of Our Food. A Peek Behind the Scenes of the Food Supply Industry.
As food prices go up and supply chains start to falter, we're hearing about more and more people struggling to afford food, even in our first world countries. For a long time food has been getting cheaper and easier to access, but what goes on behind the scenes for this to happen and have we started to take cheap and particularly pre-prepared food for granted?
Go into a supermarket in Australia and you can buy a cooked chicken with stuffing and seasoning for about $11. Hatch and raise a chicken for meat in your back yard to slaughter weight and the costs alone to do that would be nearly three times that! Then you'll have processing and cooking on top. So what happens to bring a chicken to us at that price?
The Realities of Intensive Farming.
Obviously the first step is to do things on a large scale. This is something farmers have done for centuries, but as demand for it to become cheaper and cheaper increased intensive farming began. More animals were crammed into smaller spaces, cheaper and lower quality food was fed to them and we created hybrids purely to grow fast in order to get a faster turnover. These birds are then processed in factories on a production line that basically shoves a tube into the carcass to vacuum out the guts in one go. If you've ever wondered why chicken is always a high food poisoning risk compared to other meats, this whole process is the reason why. Salmonella is rife in the crowded environment they are raised in, then the vacuum tube process is in no way clean and precise, so faeces will get onto the meat. The workers are quite literally wading through blood and guts throughout their work day and the smell is not something that will easily wash off. The meat is then cleaned in a high chlorine environment; think bleach. Then that's another contaminant these workers are breathing in all day.
Now let's take a quick look into the plant side of food production. I know a lot of land is used to grow feed for the meat industry, but even assuming that industry no longer needed supplying, we still need a lot of land for human food production on a large scale and much of that animal feed land would move over to human feed land. This land will always impact the environment and animals living in it. I recently read something from a farmer who highlighted just how many rabbits he's ended up killing during the planting of his fields just from tilling the soil and by all accounts it isn't just rabbits that end up as collateral damage. Then there are the animals killed to protect the crops from being eaten and these range from creatures as large as deer to tiny bugs.
Food waste is often being brought up as an environmental concern and while awareness is being raised at the consumer end of this to reduce food waste, we don't often hear about it on the supply end. Tons of food goes to waste throughout the chain, from the farms at the start if they can't get buyers or the produce isn't pretty enough, to the supermarkets when they don't sell their supply soon enough and bin what is past its use by date. The large scale method inevitably produces this oversupply. I sometimes think that consumers are rather like a flock of birds landing on an abundant fruit tree and pecking at every fruit to get the best bits, then leaving the rest to drop and rot as they move into the next tree.
A lot of our food is convenience food. It's ironic that ready prepared food in the supermarket often comes at an equal or lower price to making meals from scratch ourselves. Have you ever used one of those nice convenient packets of salad, ready to go on the plate? Earlier this year I visited a place that produces them. The workers are on their feet all day, manning the machines, chopping, preparing and packing. There is water constantly running to wash the salad and in order to make sure that the food is safe for consumption days down the line, that water is highly chlorinated. The workers are sloshing around in this chlorinated water overflow with red raw eyes from the chlorine fumes. If you've ever been to an indoor swimming pool, think of that chlorine smell and multiply it by at least 3. Except we aren't talking about an enclosed environment here, this is a building with huge open doorways to try and air things out and I still found the chlorine fumes unbearable! Periodically someone goes around with a big broom to try and push the excess water and debris down the drains. When they say food production uses huge amounts of water it isn't just what's needed for growing crops and raising animals, it's in the preparation too.
My husband's area of work has always been in the manufacturing industry. Recently as more manufacturing has moved abroad he has been interviewed for jobs in food production. High staff turnover isn't particularly unusual in manufacturing, because it's not exactly an enjoyable job, but these work places have all had unusually high staff turnovers. The job vacancies have been there because people keep walking out. This is always a red flag for a workplace when they can't keep workers. The environment is often stressful anyway and when the top management resort to bullying tactics to try and get more production from their staff, it can become unbearable, so the staff end up leaving. Supervisors and managers are usually salaried, so they are on a set yearly pay rather than hourly paid. This means that the company doesn't have to pay them for any overtime and many manufacturing companies will make the most of this by employing less people, but getting them doing more overtime. My husband has had to work up to 60hrs per week at times. Recently he had an interview at a factory that makes baked goods and was told that they'd be expecting him to work 100 hours per week in the position! In a country where unemployment is at an all time high, manufacturers are employing less people than ever and expecting more and more from them, perpetuating a cycle where even more people can't afford basics and an even higher demand for cheap food.
It occurs to me that we often hear how when we import cheap products they are produced by workers in abysmal conditions with terrible wages and long work hours. One of the solutions to this that are touted is to buy local. This is great in theory, after all it supports local jobs, we have minimum wages here and it should have less environmental impact than transporting it in from overseas. But is the working environment here in Australia much better? I know it was, but we seem to be heading in the same direction as the countries we to advantage of previously.
The workers are often expected to work all the daylight hours in all crop farming industries, so that can be 12+ hours on their feet, except for the few breaks now required by law. Only one place we visited catered for part time workers. Much of the crop picking is piece work, so you'll only get paid for what you pick or you have to be able to pick a minimum amount. The same goes for packing. Ironically employment agencies encourage applications for this type of work proclaiming that piece work has been abolished in Australia and you have to be paid the minimum hourly rate now, but this industry uses loopholes to get around that. If they pay an hourly wage and you can't make the minimum then you won't have a job for long. Alternatively they will just make a contract between themselves and the employee to pay piecework rates. It's good money if you can work fast and are willing to work long hours.
When I looked around the growers, apart from the management, all the workers were foreign, mostly Vietnamese and Cambodian. While the pay and working conditions are better than they might experience in their home countries, it rather feels like we are still relying on the same workers as when we import goods, we've just imported the workers instead. They say they do the work because Australians are just too lazy and don't want to do the work themselves, but having seen the work conditions myself now, I wouldn't say that they are lazy, more that in the western world we've grown used to the idea of 9-5 work days and safe work environments. We don't imagine these kind of working environments exist here any more.
Some Final Thoughts
With the economy heading the way it has been over the last few years food prices are going to continue to rise, so I don't see things improving in the work environment. Employers always try to cut costs in their workforce first, so fewer employees, more hours and less pay will likely continue to be the direction they take. It's happening across a lot of the production sector, yet there are plenty of people wanting work.
We need food to live, so it stands to reason that it should be priced to be within the reach of everyone, but we can't escape the fact that it takes manpower to get this food to the consumer. This means that we have to expect to pay for that manpower. Sometimes food gets dumped at the farms due to the cost of getting it to the consumer being higher than the loss taken by dumping the crops. This is crazy when there are so many going hungry!
I often hear people saying how food used to be a much higher percentage of our income than it is today. While this gives us an idea just what it really takes to get food from farm to plate, we also had a lot more people going hungry and malnourished back then. So reductions in food prices has been a good thing, but at what point does the cost of that price reduction outweigh the benefit of cheap food?
Are there even any simple solutions?