Saturday, 14 March 2015

Where's all the butter?

I thought it may just have been a supply chain problem to my local supermarket, but there was no butter in the Watahan across town either. I just checked when I was over there getting some wood for some shelves but that's another story.

They were doing that trick where they move the mirror at the back of the fridge further forward, so it doesn't look like it's half empty. And even when there is butter, there's a sign saying that people can only get one pack at a time. They have milk and cheese so it's not all dairy products. And they have cream too, so it's not a luxury issue. I'm not exactly sure of the process, but I thought milk, cream and butter were like fractions of raw milk. If the yields of milk are low, then you'd expect shortages of dairy products in general.

Or maybe butter is the result of cows going jogging, and the cold winter has meant they stay inside. 

I'm sure the reason is more to do with human economics than bovine ergonomics. 

Butter was one of the first edible commodities. Pliny the elder mentions it is "the most delicate of food among barbarous nations" and while it would quickly go off in the warm climates of the civilised mediterraneans, in Northern Europe butter would keep well, and the Scandinavians were exporting it from the twelfth century.

As well as trade it has a long history of being stored, most interestingly as "bog butter", in firkins buried in medieval Irish peat bogs. Some still survive.

Weight for weight it contains roughly the same energy as coal. So with a relatively long shelf life and high energy per weight, it has long been a tradable commodity.

So where is it going or where has it gone, and should we be worried?   

Does it have anything to do with the "guns and butter curve"?

There seem to be wide fluctuations in the price of butter on this graph based on US Bureau of Labor statistics. Although the most worrying part of it is that healthy food prices are going up while unhealthy food prices are going down. Perhaps butter is confused as to whether it is healthy or not?

According to Dairy Reporter the US prices in September 2014 were at an all-time high, so perhaps that's where all the butter was going? Japan ranks 8th among the world's butter consumers, but 11th among its produces, with Australia producing twice as much, and New Zealand almost ten times as much. Perhaps this pacific butter changed course and headed stateside for a better profit. 

Anyway, butter has been traded internationally for over 800 years and they still haven't got steady prices and a constant supply worked out, so that should tell us something about the economic model we are using. 

Also it's a good thing to have a few packs of in your fridge. I'm not sure whether we need to start burying it in peat bogs again just yet.