Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What do "just-in-time" manufacturing and a grocery store have in common? Shortages.

'Just-in-time' manufacturing relies on on-demand inventory/parts ordering rather than maintaining a stock of needed parts. In a rush, you could run out of capacitor X or gizmo Y and have to wait for more to come in, but you're not sitting on a lot of inventory in hopes you'll use it. Kind of hard on your suppliers, who can't rely on a steady order stream since you are ordering only as needed, but what the heck.

A grocery store, on the other hand...um...wait - not the 'other hand' at all. Grocery stores rely on on-demand ordering rather than stocking up on needed parts because they don't have the space to store any inventory. You see stores stocking up on some specific things periodically, like pumpkin pie filling near Thanksgiving and the like, but the rest of the time, what you see on the shelves is what they have, much like what's in inventory in a just-in-time manufacturing shop is all they have. Nothing in the back room....no back room, even, to speak of.

When you see a shortage of something in a grocery store, it's because of several factors; one example mentioned in an online forum is the conversion of corn to ethanol. Ethanol can be made from things other than corn, but corn's easy to grow and farmers already growing corn can just switch buyers rather than have to learn to grow a different crop, especially since there are subsidies and other incentives to take a food crop and turn it into fuel.

Another one is the increased cost of fuel; it's just not as cost-efficient to ship foodstuffs as it used to be with cheap fuel. Trucks are the primary form of transport; they aren't as efficient as trains, but our train system has fallen into disrepair with a lack of funding.

Yet another reason for shortages is the consolidation of food processing/producing companies. An ever-smaller group of companies produces much of what we eat, and brands that don't sell in as large a quantity [whether you and I like them or not...stock up on your faves now] are slowly being phased out of the market. You see this in all sorts of things, from beans to canned goods to boxes of things like 'ground beef assistant' or sauced pasta product in a box. You notice a smaller selection in a store, and think 'I'll just go to the other grocery store across town' [if that's an option] and boy golly, their selection sucks too. Not only are the varieties of fruit and veg being grown diminishing, but the variety of anything processed is diminishing as well, and rapidly.

In the USSR, central planning and control resulted in poor quality and reduced choices. Here, corporate collusion and control result in the same thing. And look what happened to the USSR.

A corporation's first responsibility is to its...what? Customers? Employees? Nope, shareholders. Or CEOs, if you've become really cynical given the large salaries and bonuses paid to the people who are responsible for companies shedding jobs and being driven into the ground (if you're the soon-to-be former CEO at BP, you just got $18,000,000 and change for demolishing the environment of the Gulf of Mexico and destroying the livelihood of thousands of people that live on its borders). But you and me? No, we are not the focus. We are consumers, and that is our function. That's why things like NAIS and attempts to control seed supplies are encouraged; we are not supposed to produce, only consume.

Why let some corporate goon dictate to you what you can and cannot eat? Buck the system and grow your own corn, preferably an heirloom/open pollinated variety, and not from Burpee or some corporate subsidiary but from the small seedsmen and women who are keeping the old varieties around. Save your seeds to grow next season. Learn to cook what you grow, and learn to cook what you like not out of a box but from that big bag of 'scratch' just like grandma had.