You’ll be familiar with these types of posts from me, which typically start with a comment like: ‘On my commute to work on …’. That’s one of the good things about a long drive – the interesting and informative discussions that you hear on the radio. This one is another interesting piece from BBC Radio 4, looking at a very topical issue, especially to those living in the South West and other rural areas in the UK.
We have recently seen pictures of farmers protesting about the price of milk and in places like Somerset, the protest took a rather odd method, where farmers from across the region entered supermarkets and simply bought all of the milk, before giving it away. The issue is that dairy farming is no longer profitable, as the price that dairy farmers receive for each pint of milk is now lower than the cost of providing it. Thus, for each pint they make a loss.
There are many reasons that have contributed to this situation, including pressures imposed by customers demanding cheaper prices; pressures from supermarkets using their monopsony power to force down the prices paid to farmers; and pressures from abroad. In the case of milk, we have a surplus and with a perishable product, i.e. one that cannot be stored, unlike wheat, this has contributed to falling prices. Data suggest that we are seeing approximately one farmer per day being forced to leave the indsutry.
This programme explores the current dairy farming crisis and draws some similarities with the wheat crisis that the UK experienced in the 1930s. The programme below is 30 minutes and provides some interesting insights on two important commodities and the economics behind the markets.
Today’s crisis in dairy farming and the wheat crisis of the 1930s BBC Radio 4; The Long View, Jonathan Freedland (29/9/15)
- Using demand and supply analysis, explain the situation in the milk market.
- Now consider the wheat industry and provide a similar analysis of how prices are set and what caused the problems seen in the 1930s.
- Although these two commodities have similarities they are also very different. Why can two different commodities experience such similar problems at such different times?
- What are the key demand and supply-side factors affecting the current low price of milk?
- Consider the market for (a) milk and (b) wheat. What are (if any) the market failures within each area?
- Agriculture is an area where we do see significant government intervention. Should the UK government be doing more to help the UK’s dairy farmers? If so, what should they do and would this intervention create further problems, e.g. unintended consequences?
The market for any good or service is affected by countless factors. On the demand-side, things such as incomes, relative prices, expectations of price changes and tastes determine the shape and position of the demand curve. For the supply curve, it’s factors including costs of production, the profitability of alternative goods and in some cases, the weather or natural disasters. It is this last factor, which has presented Weetabix with problems.
An established breakfast cereal and brand, Weetabix is well-known for producing a range of high quality products. However, production of some of its most popular products has been stopped, as the quality of the British wheat used to make the various cereals was called into question. Last year, we had little summer to speak of and this led to the ‘worst harvest we have seen in decades’, so much so that the quality of the wheat was not sufficient to be used in making the breakfast cereal. This has caused production to cease on certain products and shortages have already begun to emerge, with some shops completely selling out and facing no prospect of being re-stocked.
Weetabix is now owned by a Chinese state-owned company, but still prides itself on using locally sourced wheat. However, with the weather affecting the harvest, wheat from abroad has had to be used, aiming to reduce the gap between demand and supply. The UK is typically an exporter of wheat, but with the poor harvest has come a drop in the amount of wheat produced and thus exported by some 2m tonnes – this is back to a similar level as was seen in the 1980s. A spokesman for Weetabix said:
Normally they’re proud to claim Weetabix is not just British wheat but from within 50 miles of Burton Latimer … They have had to source a bit from outside the UK, but Weetabix is still proud to say it sources its wheat within the UK … weather permitting.
Supply will be increased once wheat from abroad is used, but it is expected that this will take a couple of weeks. In the meantime, if you’re a consumer of the traditional Weetabix, you don’t need to worry, as it’s the less-known cereals that have been affected. The following articles consider this external factor and how it affects the supply of a product.
Weetabix products hit by poor wheat harvest BBC News (22/4/13)
Weetabix supplies hit by dismal harvest The Guardian, Rupert Neate (22/4/13)
Weetabix move to scale back production and re-engineer process is a commendable one The Grocer (20/4/13)
Britain’s disastrous wheat harvest halts production of Weatbix Minis and Oatibix Mail Online, Leon Watson (22/4/13)
Bad weather threatens wheat harvest Channel 4 News, Tom Clarke (3/4/13)
Weetabix halts production of Minis after poor harvest Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (22/4/13)
- With a poor harvest, which way would you expect the supply curve to shift? Illustrate this on a diagram.
- How should this shift in supply affect the market price and quantity of wheat, assuming all else remains the same?
- How can this example can be used to explain the interdependence between markets?
- With shortages possibly emerging, what might happen to demand today? Illustrate your answer on a demand and supply diagram.
- Does sourcing wheat from local areas give Weetabix a competitive advantage? If so, how might it be affected if it does choose to import wheat?