Gentle Decline 1/3: Stockpiling Special
Brexit looms. That's kind of what it's done since the very beginning, even when we thought it was a nonsense, and surely a whole nation wouldn't shoot itself in the foot by removing itself from a situation of prosperity and benefit. But it did. So Brexit is a very real kind of anthropogenic disaster, and one that's moving much more quickly than climate change.
Jack Monroe posted in the last few days about stockpiling for Brexit. She notes that she had previously not wanted to:
"I didn’t want to contribute to food shortages, panic and alarm across the country. This afternoon, I took a deep breath, and changed my mind."
So I want to set down some of my own thinking about stockpiling, its effect on economies and supplies, the near complete necessity of it in the UK if you can, and whether we here in Ireland should do some ahead of Brexit too.
What I'm thinking of here - and what I think Monroe is also thinking of - is establishing a personal stash of food and other supplies, so that if everything goes pear-shaped for a bit, you as an individual, and the people you live with, will be ok in the short term. This is thinking I support pretty completely. There are enough things that can go wrong in the frame of climate change, from snow to hurricanes, that can cut off supplies, and if you're living on buying in food on a day to day basis, when the food is not on the shelves where you expect it, you're kind of screwed. We haven't encountered this much yet, but we're going to encounter it more. Where she and I may differ, from context, is in how long the short term is, and that's something I'm going to push out to a future issue.
I recognise fully that some people can't afford to get in food for tomorrow, let alone enough for a week in one shot, and certainly not enough to have a week's worth in the larder. That's a wider problem, and it's not one I'm trying to address here either. You could position this thinking as making sure that you, as an individual, stay above that level.
So what happens when you stockpile food? You get dry and canned and other long-life goods from some retailer or even wholesaler, you pay a reasonable price for them, and you place them somewhere you can access in any circumstances. In addition, you make sure that you have the necessary facilities to prepare the food you've stashed.
What effect does this have, apart from your own food security? That's a bigger question. Right now, with supplies working normally, the place you buy your cans and dry goods from will note (whether it's a person in a smaller grocery place, or a stocking system in a supermarket chain) that there's a slightly higher than usual demand for those goods (assuming you buy enough to make an impact), they restock, and since you've now stashed up, everything continues as normal, demand goes back to where it is, and nobody thinks anything of it again.
However, there are two ways this can change even before the anticipated disaster kicks in. First is that if a lot of people do this - buying in extra supplies - then the seller is going to see that as a change in demand, In the first few weeks, there sometimes won't be enough of the goods on the shelves to satisfy normal needs - someone is going to arrive in Tesco looking for canned chopped tomatoes, and there will be none there. Or there might be only the expensive Roma ones that cost 5-6 times what the Tesco own brand ones do (with no discernable difference in taste, I might add). And they'll complain a bit, but probably not do much about it, and then the seller will increase the supply and everything will look normal again. But in the meantime, someone has experienced a small, but to them meaningful, food supply blip. And that might - considering most humans, probably won't, but might - make them think about buying two or three cans the next time, and having a couple in stock. This is what I ordinarily do with refried beans and the particular cucumber pickle I use for some Mexican dishes, because I can't always lay my hands on those in the nearby shops. It's pure habit with the beans; everywhere stocks them now. But if enough people experience this, then there will be media coverage, and then there will be _concern_.
Media _concern_, as far as I can see, is one of the major drivers of exaggerated acquisition in the West. It leads to daft things like the new Kispy Kreme donut place in Blanchardstown having massive drive-through queues at 4 in the morning, not because people really wanted the donuts, but because there was concern about the queuing, it established the idea of scarcity in people's minds, and the donuts soared in perceptive value. It's some of what's behind people getting in line for tickets for concerts and film premieres days and weeks in advance. There isn't demand until the media coverage implies there might supply issues, and then there is. So once there is media coverage of there being no canned tomatoes in Tesco last Thursday, people will go out and buy the things like there will never be tomatoes again, and there's a weird cycle of purchase that drives the whole market mad.
These things are never, by the way, extended to whole systems. So even though the canned tomatoes are flying off the shelf, the canned kidney beans, the fresh tomatoes, and even the fecking passata on the next shelf over will remain untouched. In the Great Snow Rush of March 2018, the sliced pans vanished from the shelves, but you could still get bagels, gluten-free bread, wraps, and of course flour without any issues.
But this will have knock-on effects on the supply, eventually, and that's the other thing that can happen. The world does not contain infinite canned tomatoes. Sooner or later, all the tomatoes that grew last year and were canned will run out, and the canning factories will step up this year's production, and run through that too, and there comes a time when the factory doors sit open, and no tomatoes come in, because the tomatoes are still growing in Morocco or wherever it is tomatoes for canning come from. And those tomatoes are already growing as fast as they physically can. And then things start to look funny. Not only are there no canned tomatoes on the shelves, but the fresh tomato supply is gone, because they were canned to meet demand. The tomatoes that would have become passata and puree and ketchup, likewise. The farmers in Morocco will be planting more, but it's not like they have land sitting around idle for this. They can't increase their production without decreasing something else. What they can do (allowing for being locked into contracts by predatory supermarket buyers, etc) is raise the price. So the wholesaler raises the price. So the supermarket (allowing for competition which makes them keep prices on some but not all goods artificially low) raises the price. So now you have the situation where the can of tomatoes that makes it to the shelf costs €3, not €0.33. Which will have an impact on my weekly or monthly shopping bill, because I habitually put four or eight of them in the shopping trolley once a month or so, and that's now going from €1.20 or €2.40 to €12 to €24.
And now imagine that this _does_ extend across whole systems, that the domino effect cuts in not just on canned tomatoes but on beans and spinach and pasta and rice and flour and potatoes. Potatoes will just straight up run out; there are no potato stockpiles, and they're deeply uneconomic to import because they're heavy.
Alright, so. That's under normal conditions, assuming just media attention and knock-on effects.
Now we have Brexit. Brexit will affect the UK in a number of weird ways, but the main one in this context is going to be that a whole lot of goods coming into the country (and also leaving it, but that's less of a concern) will need to be inspected for taxes and customs, when they weren't before. There are possible ways for the UK to leave the EU and not have this happen, they're just not terribly likely.
Taxes applied to incoming goods will be passed on to the consumer. There's no way around that, so if such things happen, prices of goods will go up. I have no idea how likely that is; I mention it here in a spirit of completeness.
The main issue is going to be the actual time the inspections take because there are currently (essentially) none. Look, for instance, at a fairly standard delivery van, rolling off a ferry. The back is packed with boxes of canned tomatoes. On Day One after Brexit actually happens, it will be necessary for some person - a customs inspector - to check that those boxes do contain canned tomatoes, and that nobody is smuggling in cigarettes, alcohol, or the like. There are as yet no taxes on canned tomatoes. That's going to take some time. Let's say ten minutes. That's not an increase in the time taken for a customs inspection, because right now, there is none (I know there are some, but broadly, not very many; most goods roll through without inspection). It's a new ten minute delay. And the van behind that needs inspecting too. Twenty minutes. Say there are 60 vans on a ferry, which seems conservative - that's now ten hours' delay for the last van off, and the next ferry arrived two hours into that. The pileup is evident. You can decrease it a bit by hiring more customs inspectors, but only to a point - the physical space in which to park those vans becomes an issue, which is why parking space in south-east England has suddenly become interesting.
And those goods are not going to hit the shelves until up to ten hours later, on the first load. In absolutely normal, no-stockpiling-going-on circumstances, that's probably ok. Tesco will not run out of canned tomatoes in ten hours. By the time the effects ripple through, though, and there's a 48 hour delay because the refrigerated goods were given priority, the supplies may be a little low. If the delay gets longer, then they'll run out. And now someone who hasn't stockpiled canned tomatoes - which is going to be anyone who didn't have the spare cash, which is already a large enough segment of the population, and anyone who didn't think of it or think it was a real thing, which given the number of people who voted Leave is also a large segment - has no canned tomatoes. And looking around the supermarket, they're going to realise that there are actually some other empty shelves. So they'll buy some substitute stuff, maybe, or they might start to panic and buy some random stuff (in the aftermath of the Great Snow Rush of March 2018, I saw a man carrying three trays of 12 cans of white asparagus out of Tesco; even I have some trouble getting to an idea that that wasn't strange), and then the shelves look even emptier. I leave to your imagination the effect when someone arrives into a supermarket where the shelves are actually empty.
People who have stockpiles of food have two things going on here. First, they have food. Second, they're not putting pressure on the limited supplies coming into the country, because they already have theirs, and anything that takes pressure off that is a service to the country.
I'm not going to say this absolutely will happen. But it seems pretty likely. It'll happen for sure, I reckon, in the smaller Express supermarkets in urban areas. Some of the bigger ones in areas of high population density will have it too. And then the people who are driving from those to the more outlying ones will spread the effect.
So in short: if you are in the UK, and you are reading this, because I probably like you, I would like you to stockpile some food. Not a lot, necessarily. Enough for a week. If it gets to the end of a week of shortages and there isn't food back on the shelves, there will be bigger issues. Maybe get enough for two weeks. Buy it gradually. Try not to trigger supply issues and media concern. But if those happen, at least you'll have enough to get by for a bit, and I want you to get by.
Now, Ireland. We're not exiting the EU, so our supplies will be fine, right?
Unfortunately, no. A lot of the incoming goods for our supermarkets and shops originate in the UK, so the delays will affect us, and more come through the UK, from distribution centers in weird out of the way bits of the island of which nobody knows the name. There is a very definite vested interest for the EU in making Ireland's supply situation smooth in comparison to the UK, and I am fairly sure that will happen. But there is also a vested interest for the EU in not making it _too_ smooth. If there are knock-on effects in Ireland from the UK leaving, then it makes it that little bit clearer to everyone that it was a Bad Idea in the first place. This is more in the realm of politics than actual logistics, and that's not my area. I'm just sayin'.
I do not, at present, think that there will be shortages in Ireland in the way that I expect them in the UK. Many of our staple goods - milk, bread, potatoes, fresh vegetables - are produced locally. And we won't have issues, from Brexit at least, in moving stuff around in Ireland. But our supply chains that extend abroad are fragile (see _snow_), and subject to disruption, and the good people of Ireland will react in exactly the way as those of our larger neighbour when the shelves look bare, except that the concept of Famine has been bred into us at the genetic level, and we will acquire food and sit on it if we have to. Gods help us all if the potato supply is not actually sufficient, although we do eat a lot more pasta and rice these days. Which... comes from abroad.
Grim humour aside, I don't think that stockpiling food is going to be as necessary at the individual level in Ireland. But I don't think it's foolish, either. So in the run up to March 2019, I will be acquiring a small pile of canned tomatoes, and other such goods. And I very much hope that around June or so I can give them to a food bank, or send them in care packages to the UK.