Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Olives from Spain and tomatoes from Italy: Why?
Various people exhort us to read the label on the bottles and cans that we buy. Greenies want us to be sure that the contents have not hurt any whales, food-freaks want us to be sure that no salt has ever come near it and patriots want us to avoid buying anything imported.
And I DO read labels, but for a quite different reason from the three above. I like the information they contain about economics. They don't actually mention economics but they still tell us various things about economies.
The labels that particularly interest me are on the El-cheapo cans on the bottom shelves of supermarkets -- usually bearing some sort of "House" brand. And what they tell us about the world is quite amazing. They tell us that CHINA FEEDS THE WORLD. Not only do they make almost all of our electrical gadgets these days but they also feed us all to a significant extent. "Product of China" is what you nearly always read in the small print on those "Home brand" bottles and cans. Chinese groceries now populate the world.
People tend to sneer at such goods but for the many who prefer to keep their money for beer and cigarettes, China is a godsend.
So how come? Doesn't China have its work cut out feeding its own 1.3 billion people? It's those clever Chinese farmers. They can make crops spring lushly out of even unpromising ground. Let me give an historical example of that:
Two of my great grandfathers were in on the Palmer River goldrush. The 19th century was a century of goldrushes as new lands were opened up -- and one of the goldfields was on the Palmer river in far-North Queensland, Australia. And much gold was dug there by people from all over the world. And Chinese miners were there too.
Some of the Chinese, however, realized that they could win more gold by using their farming skills. The miners had to eat and bringing in food from South was very expensive. So the Chinese market gardeners got more gold from selling their produce than they ever would have got by mining.
BUT: The soils on Cape York Peninsula (where the Palmer lies) are notoriously poor and shallow. So what to do about that? Easy: The Chinese gardeners went all around collecting people's shit -- the traditional fertilizer of China, India and lot of other places. Shit-collecting is real shit-work but it is amazing what people will do for gold. And shit is great fertilizer so the Chinese market gardens flourished. You can still see patches of lushness where the Chinese gardens were as you travel through the area to this day.
So the Chinese are great farmers and much of China is fertile so they coax amazing amounts of food crops out of their farms. China is about the same size as CONUS, Australia and Canada (around 3 million square miles in all 4 cases) so they do actually have a lot to work with -- enough to feed their own 1.3 billion people plus feeding lots of us.
And you can learn all that by reading labels!
But sometimes you can get a surprise. You pick up a cheap can and expect to see "China" somewhere on the label but in fact see the name of some European country. Why would Europeans want to send their stuff half way around the world to Australia? Easy: Because of the EU common agriculture policy, which is mostly aimed at propping up French peasant farmers but which affects the whole of the EU.
Europe's problem is one that makes Greenies say "nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah" when you tell them about it. Now that fracking has put panic about oil running out to rest, the Greenies these days are constantly prophesying that we will run out of food (Global warming, you know). European agricultural administrators must wish there was some truth in that because their problem is the opposite: Europe produces TOO MUCH food -- more food than they can sell. They pay their farmers big subsidies to produce all the excess food and then pay Australians and others to eat it. Insane of course but that's politics. You wouldn't want to contend with angry French farmers either.
So when I recently picked up from my local supermarket a very cheap bottle of Manzanilla olives from Spain and some very cheap canned tomatoes from Italy it was because the EU was selling the stuff off at a fraction of its cost just to get rid of it. In the old days they used to donate it all to Russia (They did!) but Russia feeds itself pretty well now that they have got rid of Communism
Still, I suppose it is good that the Chinese have some competition. Pity the European taxpayer, though. Interesting things, those labels, aren't they?
Incidentally, olive trees grow so well in Australia that in South Australia they are regarded as weeds!
Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).