Every now and then I think I detect a sea change in our business. Sometimes it pertains only to my farm, but sometimes it simply dawns on me agriculture is shifting course somewhat. This week's news gave me that same impression. Something different our way comes.
And it's not just ethanol.
The curious upper-end trends in food are being carried to the everyday consumer, not because they embrace them, but because the food industry is adopting them, and that is how nearly 50% of our food is delivered. The immediate example of this development is animal welfare concern by food retailers.
In what animal welfare advocates are describing as a “historic advance,” Burger King, the world’s second-largest hamburger chain, said yesterday that it would begin buying eggs and pork from suppliers that did not confine their animals in cages and crates. [More]Obviously BK considers this to be a wise move to improve or protect their competitive position, but also consider that the executives making this decision are also more likely to be shopping at Whole Foods and ordering free-range chicken dishes when they eat out. Higher income consumers set food trends in more ways than simply by example.
Cheap food is no longer enough. In fact, "cheap" has taken on a definite downscale connotation. The now widespread practice of selective conspicuous consumption - Manolo shoes with Lee jeans - coupled with the considerable disposable income for many rearranges the shopping profile for America.
Food is becoming, I believe, a way to make a personal statement about your class and status, and it is this trend that food retailers are acting on. What you order when you are out with friends may be a subtext, just like the clothes you wear. Now add in the increasing concern with obesity and other surprising health alarms. Suddenly, you have a different answer to what eating is all about.
Significantly raising food prices to fund new ways of managing meat animals is not as unthinkable as it was a few decades ago. Consumer resistance to this could be much less than producers imagine. Still the supply-demand effect suggests that we will eat collectively less, but more expensive protein.
The implications are significant. The hog and poultry industries will likely be more frequently and harshly examined in the process, and the cattle industry will not go untouched. Meatpacking will be changed as well. Animal welfare is one part of the cause, but the cumulative effect of other simultaneous market choices will be considerable, I think.
There will continue to be an enormous demand for reasonably priced food. But the spectrum of market choices for that food could be vastly different.
I cannot help but think that all this turmoil and industry dislocation was partly triggered by the constant complaint emanating from farm country: "People don't know where their food comes from."
We got our wish. They found out.