News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Friday June 22nd 2018

Fresh things to think about

The tomato, they say, used to blush because it saw the salad dressing. While a noticeable portion of the modern fresh product is far too cold to spoil (or blush) following stringent food quality regulations, many remain red around the ears for a plethora of new and interconnected reasons. With the cumulative effect of rising food prices, climate-change related temperature increase, unclean transport fuels used to get products onto retail shelves, and market barriers which ensure that consumers eat beautiful looking salads (but exclude emerging farmers from retail markets), it should come as no surprise that our vegetables have something to be embarrassed about.

Given scientific consensus over global warming, food price hikes and massive world hunger, it appears the time has come to rethink business models, agricultural practises, and consumer conventions.

One of the issues, borne from an increasing awareness of the long-term and cumulative impact of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, is the distance fresh produce travels from farm to supermarket. Certain multi-national retailers such as Tesco’s in the UK and Wal-Mart in the US are now labelling the miles covered by their fresh produce and these ‘food miles’ provide consumers with an indication of the carbon emitted by their product of choice.

But over the last decade or more, big retailers have been centralising their delivery points, and suppliers now offload products at provincial central distribution centres (DC’s) rather than taking them straight to the nearest store.

On the one hand, this has meant large scale farmers are able to supply in bulk to one delivery point, creating savings for the consumer, but it also means a tomato grown near Riversdale would travel to the DC in Cape Town before travelling back to a retail outlet in the town close to where it was grown.

More than adding food miles to locally produced crops, small-scale farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to access bigger retail markets which offer better prices, said spokesperson for the Small Farmers Movement, Danie Engelbrecht. These farmers often do not have the capacity to transport goods to a DC hundreds of kilometres away, and as a result, their vulnerable businesses are struggling to grow.

However, Pick ‘n Pay spokesperson Tamra Veley said: “We can’t think that this assertion could apply to us.” Veley said because Pick ‘n Pay bought from “regional” distribution points, regional suppliers were “strongly” supported, and “transport costs form part of their (the suppliers) cost to us, in the same way that our operating costs are included in the price to consumers”. “We kind of go out of our way to help small farmers.”

While the farmers might be compensated for fuel expenditure, the large capital outlay for the purchase of trucks are not taken into account, nor are the increased CO2 emissions from transport.

Woolworths Supply Chain and Logistics Divisional Director Burger van der Merwe said DC’s were the most efficient method of distribution for suppliers and stores. The “centralised distribution model allows us and suppliers to reduce transport costs”, he said, and “the location of the Midrand Distribution Centre, for example, reduced kilometers travelled by suppliers to the facility by 7%”. What is missing here are the calculations for DC’s in less built-up environs.

According to Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) Researcher, David Neves, “presumably the distribution centres make economic sense to the corporate retailers, but what they do not necessary reflect is the environmental cost of vast distances refrigerated trucks travel, or the social costs of the market exclusion many small and emerging farmers suffer.”

Engelbrecht said while central distribution may benefit large-scale farmers, smaller enterprises simply cannot afford the transport costs, or infrastructure such as cold trucks necessary for maintaining even temperatures over long distances – even when offered higher prices to compensate. As a result, farmers like Engelbrecht are obliged to supply smaller quantities to smaller outlets, for lower prices.

“The organisation of the regional distribution centres reflects the extremely centralised and vertically integrated nature of corporate retail in South Africa,” said Neves. “Most individual supermarket branches…have very limited autonomy to source products locally, they simply stock what the often-distant corporate buyers decree. Most supermarkets are basically islands of corporate extraction, largely disconnected for their surrounding communities expect for the wages they pay. Particularly in historically impoverished areas they contribute very little to local multiplier effects – their profits don’t circulate locally, instead they are swiftly repatriated to head officers in major urban centres.”

Engelbrecht added, “You don’t get the prices your produce is worth. If you supply locally, you have to take what you can get…. And that’s our problem.”

And in the current carbon climate, small-scale farmers should receive a premium for keeping food miles to a minimum. One retail chain which seems to have a more sustainable model is Spar. “It’s a good thing when suppliers buy from local farmers,” says Swellendam Spar assistant manager Gerhard Ujs.

Ujs is able to buy locally because while Spar uses a DC for its ‘Fresh Line’ range, which accounts for at least 65% of its fresh produce, individual stores are allowed to exercise their own discretion when sourcing from local producers. “If you are a fresh-line supplier you are saying you have the capacity to supply the Western Cape,” he said, but smaller growers of products of matching quality are able to supply to local stores under their own labels. “But we need ‘Fresh Line’ labels, because the customers want it.”

Veley likewise asserted: “The focus is now very heavily on quality of service and quality (of produce) and safety.” She added that as part of a bid to support emerging farmers in meeting new standards, many of Pick ‘n Pay’s more established suppliers run upliftment projects “as part of Pick n Pay’s social responsibility requirements”.

Engelbrecht, however, claims that big retailers don’t always meet their responsibility toward struggling emerging farmers. While some attention had been given to various problems, they were not nearly enough. “There is no real assistance,” he said.

According to the Synthesis Report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) which took place in Johannesburg in April this year, states that support for small scale farming, and moving away from industrialised monoculture, is critical to maintaining food security.

The report notes that agriculture needs to be remodelled, and this required the “active participation among various stakeholders across multiple scales”. Indeed, as the report further states, “our perception of the challenges and choices we make at this juncture in history will determine how we protect and secure our future”.

And given recent food price hikes, global temperature increases, and problems of food security and development, it may be time to consider the business of agriculture in greater depth – from the distances produce to travels, development of small-scale farming and consumers demanding their tomatoes have an unblemished blush.

* Reporting by Anita Funke. Published in the Mail & Guardian, 15 August 2008.

Tags: environment agriculture climate change

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