The New Normal?

BY JIM WEBSTER

Everybody talks about getting back to normal but what is normal going to be? Already people are commenting that food prices are rising. I’ve been the one doing the shopping and I’ve noticed that there are no longer the ‘two for one’ offers and special discounts. A friend of mine who shopped at Booths because it was quieter decided that it was also a bit pricey. So she put the same order into Morrison’s, click and collect, and discovered that she didn’t save a tenner on the family shop.

The supermarkets have issues. So whilst Tesco’s, for example, has seen a 30% increase in food sales, apparently they’ve seen a fall in clothing and fuel sales of 70%. Given that food is high turnover and low margin, that’s not a comforting statistic for them.

Add to that they have promised a 10% staff bonus for those working through the pandemic, have hired another 45,000 staff to fill gaps, whilst they are still paying full wages to 50,000 who are sick or forced to stay at home. They will probably get money from the government to cover those staying at home, and they are getting a £585 million business rate saving. But they reckon that it will cost them somewhere between £650 million and £925 million extra to get them through the lock-down.

Now I admit that the tears are not running down my withered cheeks for their plight. But I mention this because these are the people who will set the market we farmers have to sell into. So this price increase has nothing to do with increased farm production costs. At the moment farmers are trying to hire labour to pick crops for major retailers without a clue as to whether the retailer will increase the price to cover the farmer’s extra costs or not.

So I think we can assume in the new normal that people will have to pay a higher proportion of their income for food. This isn’t entirely unreasonable.

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But what else will the new normal entail?

There appears to be an acceptance that a lot of jobs will be lost. Looking at the chart above, one area where a family can make big savings is ‘services’. People have already got out of the habit of just sending somebody in the office out to the local coffee shop for everybody.

Then again, I know a lady who never washes her hair. She visits the hairdresser every week and has it washed, cut, and delicately tinted. I suspect that there will be fewer people doing that in the next year or so.

Then there’s travel. I saw a piece in one of the papers saying that the price of flights would be very expensive when they started flying again because the planes would fly half empty because of social distancing. (Stop me if I’m wrong but don’t they work with recycled air anyway? So you’re still re-breathing it even if you sit six feet from somebody.) The paper also pointed out that with a lot of people not earning a lot at the moment, there could be a lot fewer people wanting to fly anyway. But then where are you going to fly to? Which countries will keep up travel restrictions? Also given there are going to be all sorts of versions of the current virus ricocheting around the world as we as a species struggle to get immune to them all, do you really want to fly to somewhere without a really good health service?

Also remember that whilst in this country the government is forking out huge sums of money to keep things working, a lot of countries don’t have this sort of money. So I suspect we’ll see the tourist industries in a lot of countries just collapse this year and next. Indeed in a lot of these places the economies might survive only because they run at a very low level anyway.

What about those (often Western-owned) companies in the Third World who grow cash crops for the western market? Reliant on air-freight and cheap labour, how well will their business model cope? A World Bank report discusses the effect of the pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, and raises the spectre of “a severe food security crisis’ as agricultural production and imports fall.”

And what about carbon emissions? It’s a bit early to tell, but “My expectation is this will drag on for a few years in terms of stunted economic growth,” says Glen Peters, the research director at the Centre for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo, Norway. Because economic growth remains tightly linked to carbon emissions on a global scale, Peters says that this could, potentially, “lead to a worldwide emissions dip of one percent or more, comparable to what occurred during the 2009 financial crisis. However, if the economic downturn winds up being worse than is currently forecast, emissions could fall even further.

From the farming point of view in the UK, some things are moving in a positive direction. There has been a distinct drop in the number of media articles attacking UK farming. Admittedly you do get people like Chris Packham saying that farmers could have to self-isolate and will not be able to go into the fields. But there again he is BBC and one cannot expect miracles overnight.

Without the ability to fly vegetables into the country produced by grossly exploited third world labour, buying British does seem both the sensible and the moral choice.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.

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