Why flour is still missing from supermarket shelves



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Brigit Busicchia, Macquarie University

Extreme shortages of toilet paper, pasta and other pantry products defined the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic for many shoppers around the world. Availability of most these goods has returned to normal.

But not for baking goods – flour in particular.

In Britain the flour shortage has led to the thousand-year-old Sturminster Newton Mill, established in 1016, cranking back into production. Sales by small artisan outfits – such as the Shipton Mill, mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 – have surged. It’s the same in France.

So why are there flour shortages from Europe to the United States and Australia?

The answer is both simple and complex.

It is partly to do with the basic economics of demand and supply. Demand for baking ingredients has spiked because people staying home (and not going to restaurants or cafes) cook more.

More fundamentally it is about the structure of concentrated food distribution systems geared to supply commercial rather than retail demand.

The inflexibility of those channels highlights a key issue in discussions about food security – that is, ensuring people have access to food. It is not just a matter of how much food is produced but how it is distributed.

Changing consumption patterns

Supermarket shortages of toilet paper and pasta were mostly attributed to a surge in demand driven by panic-buying and stockpiling, along with a lag in supply chains geared to provide just enough product to stores to avoid storing inexpensive but bulky inventory.

As stock disappeared from supermarket shelves, other consumers afraid of being caught short also started buying more than they normally would. Responding to that surge in demand and increasing supply took producers time – usually at least a month.




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But a less-discussed part of the problem was the shift in consumption patterns, as stay-at-home rules resulted in toilet paper demand from workplaces and public buildings declining and home demand increasing. And the toilet paper that commercial buyers want is different to what people buy for themselves.

In the case of flour, the split between supplying commercial and retail demand has been an even more significant factor.

Until the pandemic, retail demand was a small (and diminishing) part of the flour market. In Britain, for example, it represented just 4% of flour consumption. The rest went to commercial bakers and food manufacturers.

While the quality of flour commercial users buy is not necessarily different, the size of the packages in which they buy is – bags of 12, 25 of 32 kilograms, rather than the 1kg or 2kg bags that home bakers prefer.

With home demand spiking – in Australia, for example, retail flour sales rose 140% in March – the large flour-milling operations quickly reached the limits of their equipment and processes to package flour in smaller bags.



ABS 8501.0 Retail Trade, Australia, Mar 2020

Hence the supermarket shortages – and the opportunity that presented for boutique millers.

Industry concentration

Also contributing to the slowness of flour millers in responding to higher retail demand (compared to eggs, for instance) is the level of industry concentration.

In Australia, for example, four companies mill 80% of flour. In Britain the four largest millers account for about 65% of flour production.

Although highly efficient, these producers have been less flexible in adjusting their product packaging and moving distribution to supermarkets.




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Concentration in the supermarket sector has not helped either. Increasingly, supermarket chains cut out intermediaries (wholesalers) from their supply chains and buy directly from producers. This has made changing their sources more difficult.

Production versus distribution

The rigidity of food supply chains in responding to changes in consumption by moving food distribution from commercial to retail channels can also be seen in cases of European and American farmers reportedly pouring milk down the drain and leaving vegetables to rot in their fields.




Read more:
Why farmers are dumping milk down the drain and letting produce rot in fields


As we ponder how to ensure food security, we will need to address these systemic issues. We cannot think problems are solved just by increasing supply. It is distribution that is key.The Conversation

Brigit Busicchia, PhD, Political Economy, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

GAZA CONFLICT TAKING TOLL ON BOTH SIDES OF BORDER


Christians normally permitted to leave Gaza for Bethlehem during Christmas found themselves unable to return home and separated from their families when fighting erupted between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza in late December, reports Baptist Press.

Isa,* a layman at Gaza Baptist Church, was one of those separated from his family. He returned to Gaza on Dec. 26 to take care of some church business. His family remained in Bethlehem, unaware the borders were about to close. “This is the worst it has ever been [in Gaza],” Isa told a Christian worker.

The Gaza Baptist Church building has sustained damage over the past two weeks. According to a Christian worker, the majority of the damage occurred Dec. 27 when a police station across the street took a direct hit.

Another Christian family found themselves separated when they tried to exit Gaza to find safety in Israel, the Christian worker said. The father and his two sons were allowed to go to Bethlehem, but the wife and two daughters were not. The man quickly returned to Gaza, despite the violence.

Residents of Israel are struggling, too.

One Israeli soldier asked a Christian worker to pray for him while he was at war. To the worker’s surprise, the soldier didn’t ask him to pray for his safety but rather that he wouldn’t have to use his gun.

Life must go on — even in scary situations, the Christian worker added.

A nurse in southern Israel was on her way to a hospital one morning when bomb sirens started blaring. “You can’t stay in your car, because the shrapnel will kill you,” a Christian worker in the area said. “You have to get out of your car and lie in the ditch beside the road.”

Schools in southern Israel have been closed because of bomb threats. Many kindergarten buildings have been hit directly by missile fire from Gaza, a worker said; however, no children or teachers were inside at the time.

“Pray that those who want peace will have the victory,” the worker said. “There’s a lot of praying [among Israeli believers], not only for the soldiers but for the believers in Gaza.”

The hope of Christian workers in Israel is that calm will be restored quickly and that the economy will recover.

Employment in Gaza has plummeted, the worker noted. Twenty years ago nearly 100,000 men went into Israel daily to work; before the latest conflict that number had decreased dramatically. Now, with the border closing, it is down to zero.

Flour has been scarce for more than a week in Gaza — in a culture where bread is served with every meal, the worker said. When a bakery does receive a shipment, it is not uncommon for more than 600 people to line up for the chance to get one piece of flatbread.

Even if families have flour, rotating blackouts make baking nearly impossible, the worker explained. They never know when electricity will be available. Some areas of Gaza haven’t seen power for five days.

Because food, water and electricity are limited in Gaza, Israel is promising to allow aid to reach Palestinian civilians during a three-hour period each day, according to news reports. Food, water, cooking oil and medicine are among the supplies expected to flow into the area.

Report from the Christian Telegraph