The world is short of agricultural land. There are an increasing number of mouths to feed. The emerging middle classes in developing countries are looking for badges of affluence, one of which is to forsake the vegetarian diets of their grandparents to demand more meat.
The net result is rising food price inflation, which has triggered civil unrest already. There are several other factors at play here, but it mainly boils down to issues of supply and demand.
So there is increasing pressure on farmers to raise yields by any means possible, with fertiliser sales soaring, despite their rising cost. Indeed, some 40 per cent of the increases in global food prices (at the farm gate) are driven by the rising price of oil, which remains oddly high despite the onset of recession in the developed world.
Financiers are tripping over their Gucci loafers in a stampede to create vehicles that facilitate grabbing a slice of the action, with shares in fertiliser companies and feedstuffs businesses in great demand.
Yet, at the same time, the farmers’ market movement is booming – from the first market in 1997 to today’s 550 – with annual sales of£200 million. That’s not enough to deeply worry the boys at Holborn or Cheshunt, but it is impressive growth nonetheless.
An increasing number of “mass affluent” consumers want less fertiliser applied to the crops they end up eating, not more. They want increased traceability (coming soon to a butcher near you – the CV and the name of the grandmother of the cow they have bought a slice of).
Televised images of Asians standing in line for a – 40 per cent more expensive – kilo of rice sit uneasily with the thought of a British blonde pondering the previous welfare of the deer whose haunch she is purchasing. Different consumer, same planet.
There is a similar divergence in the increasingly beleaguered UK retail scene. Profit warnings have been flowing, with some of the earliest and most notable coming from volume furniture retailers.
Yet – and I speak from bitter personal experience here – look for something more upmarket and one is still faced with the traditional five- to six-week wait. Toffs of my acquaintance tell me yacht builders still give delivery dates of a year or more. There is big debate in the investment community about the degree to which luxury brands will be insulated from the global consumer slowdown, as well as which more mass-appeal luxury brands will suffer revenue falls.
For the moment, we are clearly in a twin-track consumer world, but will there be convergence of attitudes? Consumers are becoming bifurcated – if not bipolar. I have a lot of sympathy with retailers trying to make sense of all this.
Paul Smiddy is head of retail research at HSBC