/ 20 August 2008

Fresh things to think about

While most modern fresh produce is kept far too cool to blush (or spoil) following stringent food quality regulations, there are a number of new and interconnected reasons for consumers to be embarrassed about their demand for perfect fresh produce.

Over the past decade or more South African corporate retailers have been centralising their delivery points and suppliers now offload products at provincial central distribution centres (DCs) 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 a town close to where it was grown.

Given scientific consensus on the reality of global warming owing to increasing carbon emissions and growing consumer awareness of climate change, retailers increasing the distance food travels in order to streamline their operations might be counterproductive, particular for those who push their ”green” credentials and support of organic produce.

But more than adding food miles to locally produced crops — and retail chains in the United Kingdom and the United States are already putting food-mile labels on produce — small scale farmers say the centralised distribution model makes it increasingly difficult to access these bigger retail markets.

Small Farmers Movement spokesperson Danie Engelbrecht said the majority of smaller farmers 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.

Engelbrecht warns that already there are small-scale farmers in the Southern Cape who have simply stopped growing crops or are leaving the land because their operation is not profitable. This is a situation we can hardly afford in the light of growing food insecurity.

However, Pick n Pay spokesperson Tamra Veley said: ”We can’t think that this assertion [that they are freezing out small farmers] 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.”

Woolworths supply chain and logistics divisional director Burger van der Merwe said DCs 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 kilometres travelled by suppliers to the facility by 7%”.

But no mention is made of efficiency calculations for DCs in less built-up environs and the retailers’ assertions do not hold water with 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,” said Neves. The organisation of the regional distribution centres reflected the ”extremely centralised and vertically integrated nature of corporate retail in South Africa”.

”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 from their surrounding communities, except 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 offices in major urban centres.”

Engelbrecht added: ”You [small-scale farmers] 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 a burgeoning carbon climate, small-scale farmers should receive a premium for keeping food miles to a minimum rather than being penalised for not driving their produce hundreds of kilometres in refrigerated trucks.

One retail chain which seems to have a more sustainable model is Spar. Swellendam Spar assistant manager Gerhard Ujs said the store 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.” — West Cape News