Burning question

Wildfires across huge areas of southern Europe mean even more bad news for olive oil and table olive packers. It is impossible to predict the full effect on this winter’s prices for olive oil or table olives, but there will be direct consequences. This is not a complete wipe-put story, since established olive trees with deep root systems can recover from fires, although this will take time. Young olive trees are more susceptible to fire damage.

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The immediate impact will be on packers and blenders of olive oil, particularly in Italy: these skilled folk have a network of suppliers for very specific oils with relatively rare qualities. The suppliers of such rarities are spread over the continent, from Gibraltar and north Africa down to the middle east. The trading network is complex and known to a handful of olive oil blending experts.

In a year when the mainstream crop is already looking patchy and fraught, this will mean higher costs for the retailers. In the UK, the multiples are reluctant to let their double digit margins take a hit and will do their level best to make sure that suppliers carry the burden. The situation is, however, beyond horse trading. Bulk olive oil prices will be non-negotiable, where there is product to be had. Looking at the Mediterranean over the next few weeks, the following impacts can be expected. Industrial tomatoes for peeled plum tomato canning lines can be expected to be short, since crop irrigation is being used for firefighting. Chopped tomatoes, passata and tomato paste can be made from almost any variety of tomato and production is not limited to southern Italy. Table olives are under a shadow, with a high risk of localised damage: a lot of olives will have been burnt off the trees. Durum wheat, essential for pasta manufacture, may have escaped the worst of the heat waves, but export tonnages will probably be restricted.

For the latest information on the European forest fires, click here.

Canned goods coming a cropper?

We have been used to seeing cheap canned foods on supermarket shelves all the year round for decades. With southern Europe just one of the many regions suffering record temperatures and drought around the world, it is timely to look at the possible impact on food products that we have relied on for centuries. It is necessary to distinguish canned foods that have an underlying seasonality, in other words, a point in the season at which the given food is plentiful.

Foods such as canned peeled plum tomatoes, canned salmon, or canned green beans, are packed during the peak cropping weeks of the season. Dedicated canning and cooking lines operate 24/7, with a scaled up version of a process that Nicolas Appert would recognise instantly. In the case of wild salmon, the canneries are located next to the rivers and are stocked up with empty cans ahead of the season. When the salmon return to spawn, fishing crews join the serried ranks of predators that are attracted by thousands of fish in breeding condition.

The standard cooking unit on such lines are a large tank of water, similar to a swimming pool, but kept at a rolling boil for the duration of the pack, which can last weeks. As the fish are caught and brought to a salmon cannery, they are prepared and the cans are filled before cooking. The duration of the cooking time is regulated by a crawler belt that covers the floor of the cooker. Small 100 gram cans are shifted through the cooker during the day at relatively rapid speeds, since they need less cooking than larger cans.

In the case of peeled plum tomato canneries, can sizes go up to 3kg. Lorryloads of raw tomatoes are delivered during the day, some of which will be kept for the night shift. When they clock in, they start filling 3kg cans while the crawler belt is slowed down to its slowest setting. By the time the day shift returns, there will be large stacks of packed and cooked 3kg cans. There will also be a steady stream of lorries laden with tomatoes for the day shift as the belt at the bottom of the cooking tank returns to its daytime setting.

This kind of production line depends on high volume intakes during a clearly-delimited number of weeks (salmon canneries generally pack more than one kind of salmon). It is vulnerable to seasonal variations and crop failures. A bit like us, really. There is an important distinction to make for peeled plum tomatoes, which is that these are mainly grown and packed in Italy. Unlike chopped tomatoes or tomato paste or passata, the cannery can only pack intact tomatoes. These are an industrial variety that are not useful for any other product.

Selling directly

“Today, we have come to sell our produce for a fair price,” declares Gérard Ricardi. The secretary general of radical farmers’ union MODEF (MOuvement pour la Défence des Exploitants Familiaux) has plenty of takers for tomatoes at EUR 1.50/kilo outside the mairie [town hall] of Ivry sur Seine on a blazing hot morning in late August.

The supermarkets pay around 45 centimes/kilo for tomatoes that cost 70 centimes/kilo to grow, Ricardi explains. There is 20 centimes/kilo to find for transport and packaging, before the same tomatoes are sold in Paris for EUR 2.50/kilo.

“Prices like that are a racket,” he grumbles. “Here, the growers are earning 70 centimes/kilo, there’s 20 centimes/kilo freight and packing, with 60 centimes for the distributor.” Total EUR 1.50/kg.

“We want to make it clear that there is scope for everyone to earn a living. The state should face up to its responsibilities and support consumers and growers alike.”

Sixty years ago, the French state imposed a maximum retail margin on agricultural products. “The state recognised then that retailers were overcharging and took action to stop the abuse.”

Known as the coefficient multiplicateur, retailers were able to multiply their cost prices by a factor of between 1.5 and 1.7, but no more. “The grocers were just lining their pockets, but it was not acceptable then in the way it is now.”

In fact, this policy had two important benefits: “Consumer prices were lower, because prices were linked to growers’ production costs and growers received a fair return for their work,” Ricardi observes.

“There was even a shared interest for retailers to pay more to the producer, so that the retail price could be higher. It was a virtuous circle that worked for consumers and producers, too.”

The coefficient multiplicateur lasted until 1986, when the retail lobby finally managed to kill it off. In recent years, a watered-down form of the coefficient multiplicateur returned to the Code de l’Agriculture as an emergency measure, but it has never been implemented because there is simply no political will to question the integrity of multiple retailers.

MODEF is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. MODEF was founded to stand up for small family farmers at a time when the mainstream farming unions would have cheerfully excluded six million peasants from the political process. Today, the largest union FNSEA uses the word paysan (peasant) to pluck the heartstrings of a nation that has very varied notions of a time before industrial farming, which should somehow have been better than today but probably was not.

Against all the odds, MODEF is still fighting the same assumptions in harder times. There are fewer peasants – just under half a million – but the growing power of a handful of multiple retailers has become a stranglehold on the nation’s food supply.

“We are disappearing and the head of state takes us for a bunch of idiots,” growls Girardi. Around him are crates of nectarines, plums and melons, fruit on which supermarkets earn similar margins to the tomato bonanza he described above.

“They’re buying my potatoes for 5 centimes a kilo,” another producer chips in. “They cost me 20 centimes a kilo to grow.”

As he speaks, just 100 metres away a French-owned discount grocery chain is selling 2.5 kilos of potatoes in a net for EUR 2.99. At 13 locations around Paris, there are queues to buy MODEF-produced potatoes priced at EUR 4 for a 5 kilo net.

The previous night, the growers had loaded an articulated lorry with tonnes of potatoes, melons, tomatoes, nectarines, plums and salad grown in Lot-et-Garonne before driving to the French capital to sell directly to Parisian consumers. Not that the public needed a lot of convincing.

The prices speak for themselves: two lettuces for EUR 1, compared to EUR 0.99 for a single lettuce in the same French discounter, while MODEF nectarines were priced at EUR 2/kilo against the retailer’s EUR 2.29/kilo.

At a local shopping centre a bit further away, Spanish grade II tomatoes are being sold in a larger supermarket for EUR 1.09/kilo. MODEF growers are not alone in resenting the kind of market distortion that arises from a European directive that has allowed countries such as Germany and Spain to exploit cheap foreign labour and undercut growers elsewhere in the European Union.

“The Bolkenstein directive must be revoked as a matter of urgency,” says MEP Patrick Le Hyaric, who was present at Ivry sur Seine. “This directive has allowed Spanish growers to take on Moroccan farm labourers and pay them less than the minimum European salaries,” he declared.

As a member of the European parliamentary commission for agriculture, he had just returned from Lot-et-Garonne where he had met a delegation of fresh produce growers, some of whom were on the same improvised market square at Ivry sur Seine. “I knew the situation was difficult, but now I have a better idea of the scale of the crisis that is gripping the small and medium-sized holdings in this sector.”

Over the past 20 years, Lot-et-Garonne has already seen a lot of growers go out of business. “Today, those that remain do not know if they will still be standing in six months’ time,” warns Le Hyaric.

He is organising an urgent meeting with the French minister for food, farming and fisheries, Bruno Le Maire, to demand emergency aid packages for growers and the urgent implementation of the coefficient multiplicateur. This is available as a crisis measure but has been studiously avoided by the French government.

“In its present form, the Common Agricultural Policy has a number of negative effects. But in its original form, it was a sound piece of policy. The préférence communautaire was not a bad idea, it just did not fit in with ultra-liberal ideas or the so-called ‘free market’, that is all.

“So Europe gave in to US demands. And now, for instance, France is completely dependent on imported soya to feed its livestock, most of it from Brazil.”

As long as cheap food imports can be procured around the world, consumers in the industrial world can get by without small, local food producers. But abandoning an entire sector of the economy has a cost that should be neither underestimated nor trivialised.

It is neither a secret nor is it difficult to understand. Talk to anyone who sells food direct: just don’t leave it too long.