The Secret Financial Life of Food

I began to follow the [food] commodities market more closely. After only a few weeks of scrutinizing the ups and downs of the market, I was amazed by the fragility of the same commodities that sit so sturdily on the supermarket shelf. Take coffee, for example. Within the space of a few weeks, the price of coffee was buffeted by tropical storms and early frosts that threatened to crimp crop output. Then came an onslaught of a disease that threatened crops across much of Latin America, where the majority of coffee beans grow. The commodity price soared as a shortage was predicted. Finally, a wily spectator who had "cornered the market" unloaded mass quantities of coffee, driving prices back down. There was no run on jars of Folgers at the grocery. The price of my daily latte didn't fluctuate by even a penny.

This is an excerpt from a striking little book by Kara Newman called The Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets.

This little blurb about coffee futures makes you realize how insulated from reality we consumers are. We're completely protected from all the drama and price fluctuations of a commodity we completely take for granted. All we have to do is just head to the store or Starbucks... and there's our coffee, sitting there waiting for us. And the price is the same as always.

There is an entire industry out there putting this product on our shelves for us, and we consumers don't have to trouble our pretty little heads with any of these supply/demand worries. Heck, we don't even know about them--after all, how would we see something that we don't see? Kind of incredible if you think about it.

One takeaway that sticks in my mind is how incredibly lucky we are as consumers. It can be deceivingly easy to complain and wring our hands about the "greedy" food industry. But thinking through the example above gives me, if anything, a feeling of gratitude.

Readers, what do you think?

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chacha1 said...

Sounds fascinating. I have ordered my copy. Stop it Dan.

Tangentially: there is nowhere I feel richer than at the supermarket. I mean, there is literally nothing in there that I cannot afford to buy. (This was not always the case. I spent plenty of years living on Total cereal, Ramen noodles, and spaghetti.)

Also, I distinctly remember the sad, rural "supermarket" of my youth, in which the only seafood products were frozen shrimp or fish sticks and there was exactly one option for any given manufactured product. I remember when "tea" meant a box of Lipton, "chocolate" meant Hershey's, and you couldn't even get whole coffee beans.

The food industry is demonized by some, but as someone who loves having easy access to a mind-blowing variety of safe, clean, food ... I'm looking elsewhere for my villains.

Daniel said...

Thanks Chacha. Yep, I also talked about this title in my 30 Day Voracious Reading Trial post. It's a niche-y book, but if you're interested in some of the history of food commodities and food commodity trading, you should find it pretty interesting.

And I hear you... it's so easy to forget that there's an entire *industry* working away behind the scenes to put all this stuff on our shelves for us. The logistics are kind of amazing if you really think about it.

Then again, it's easy to ignore the things we don't see. :)


chacha1 said...

stumbled across this and thought you might find it interesting: