More & Better

This is a speech I gave prior to the showing of a film based on the activities of Wal Mart, entitled "Wal Mart, the high cost of low price". My thanks go to Bill McKibben, whose book "Deep economy" was its inspiration.


For generations now the idea that increasing efficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth has undisputedly produced MORE. This in turn has meant that we today enjoy a BETTER standard of living than any generation before us.

At the time of the 2nd world war on average we spent 30% of our income on food; today that average is just 10%. Cheap oil has resulted in ever greater mechanisation, and allowed cheap synthetic fertilizers to be created; the result ever bigger and more efficient farms. So although you actually get MORE food per acre on a small farm; you get MORE food per £ with big ones.

The scale and numbers today are staggering

Today 4 Supermarkets control 80% of the food consumed in the UK. In my industry, Coffee, 4 firms control 85% of global coffee roasting; and finally without wishing to overdo the stats, one Ohio farm in the US produces 3 billion eggs per year.

But today for the first time in a generation we’re starting to wake up to the fact that MORE doesn’t necessarily mean BETTER.

The specialisation and consolidation in some areas in the US has been so intense that sociologists now designate many parts of rural America as “food deserts” totally dependent on convenience stores and without access to fresh produce.

One farm in Utah, with 1.5 million pigs has a sewage problem larger than that of the city of Los Angeles – Intensive farming being the only way to compete in the low cost arena. Is MORE therefore still BETTER?

The industrialisation of poultry has resulted in increasing cases of Avian flu, and cases of Salmonella have doubled since the 1970’s. When reflecting on the increasing centralisation of food production, one American senator said “For the life of me, I cannot understand why terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do”. There’s food for thought.

World events are now having a massive impact on the price we now pay for food. Oil prices have more than doubled in a year and are now higher in real terms than they were in the 1970’s. Water tables around the world are falling as nations like India and China play catch up on our western economies. The key resources we’ve relied on for centuries are starting to run out and oil which replaced manual labour to bring us cheap food is no longer delivering the huge savings once enjoyed. But still we continue to pursue those two simple objectives of MORE and BETTER.

The problem is, as has been highlighted by the introduction of that wonderful tax GST is how disconnected the average man or woman on the street has become from the realities of the costs of doing business on Jersey. We currently have food inflation running at between 5 and 6% and together with GST this has seen some establishments having to increase their prices by up to 10%, just to stand still. Yet the result has been screams of “profiteering” and cries of “we need a 3rd multiple” – knee jerk reactions in a fragmented society where MORE clearly doesn’t mean BETTER.

What I hope tonight’s film will do, is to allow you time to reflect upon what factors are really important to ensure the future sustainability of our community. How as a community we need to reconnect. Food security alone will become an increasingly big issue and our Government should be taking a long hard look at where the gaps are and what can be practically done to encourage local entrepreneurs to fill those gaps.

It has now been calculated in what is known as the multiplier effect that every £10 spent in a local food initiative is worth £25 to the local economy. The same £10 spent in non-local business produces just £14 worth of benefits to the local economy.

Today in a global world our spending habits don’t benefit only the local community; there is significant economic leakage as we purchase goods on the internet. By 2010 non-locally owned businesses will pay no tax to the local economy, this will result in the loss of a significant amount of taxable earnings for the Jersey economy; so considering bringing in a 3rd multiple under the auspices of competition has far wider consequences than simply pushing down the price of a can of baked beans.

Ultimately, the MORE we do for ourselves the BETTER it will be for everyone in our community. There really is no alternative.

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