Supermarkets

So far, we have presented the reasons to 'go local', but what is the problem with supermarkets?

The food chain is becoming increasingly global ­ and big business has taken control, taking income away from small producers. Farmers around the world are encouraged by bodies like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to grow whatever they can most cheaply and sell it worldwide. This helps the profits of the supermarkets, fertilizer and pesticide companies but it's bad news for small farmers, people and the environment. Friends of the Earth present the following reasons for avoiding supermarkets:

  1. Food and environment safety standards: WTO rules mean these can be seen as trade barriers and overruled.
  2. Food miles: Food that could be grown in the UK is shipped in from around the world - causing climate pollution.
  3. Supermarket armlock: Farmers often have to accept the loss-making prices supermarkets offer. Otherwise they face losing their market.
  4. Chemical dependence: Biotech companies want to control the seed and chemicals markets by producing GM crops that are designed to be used with their own brand of herbicide.

Convenience Comes at a Price

As demand grows, supermarkets are beginning to stock more organic and fair trade lines, and it's difficult to argue against the convenience of being able to do all of your shopping under one roof.

Zac Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist, makes important points highlighted below. For more information about supermarkets see the books Shopped by Joanna Blythman and Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence.

Less Variety: Consider that two-thirds of UK farmers say supermarket demands for conformity have led them to give up on otherwise productive varieties of fruit. So, for example, 94% of eating pears grown in the UK consist of just three varieties, yet there are 550 varieties of pears native to Britain.

Food miles: Each year a typical UK family of four generates 8 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the production, processing and packaging of the food they eat. Supermarket demands for imports of fresh food mean UK airfreight is growing at around 7% a year. Add it all up and a Sunday lunch bought at a supermarket could have travelled more than 26,000 miles.

Hidden costs: It is an illusion that supermarkets are merely accommodating consumer demand for cheap food. There is nothing cheap about supermarket produce. The packaging alone costs the average household £470 a year - almost a sixth of their food expenditure.. Friends of the Earth found that organic food in farmers' markets is 33-37 per cent cheaper than the supermarket equivalent.

Hidden subsidies: The supermarket regime depends on all kinds of hidden and less hidden subsidies, without which it would not be nearly as economic as it currently is. For one thing, intensive agriculture itself, the lynchpin of supermarket trade, is propped up with generous subsidies. Professor Jules Pretty has calculated that the taxpayer forks out £2.4 billion each year to cover the indirect costs associated with intensive farming in Britain.

Social cost: The greatest cost that supermarkets don't tell us about is the cost to the community. Eight local independent stores closed each day between 1986 and 1996. Ironically, given the Government's fondness for the giant retailers, some of the best research into the negative effects of supermarkets was conducted by the same Government in 1998. Its unambiguous conclusion was that supermarkets destroy jobs, shops, rural livelihoods and local economies.

Damage to UK Farmers: In 2001 Tesco and Sainsbury's profits were greater than the income of every farmer in the UK. When we buy a pint of milk for 35p, the farmer is paid only 9p to produce it. The tragedy is that farmers cannot complain; nearly 70% of all food being sold through just four retailers, a farmer, no matter how big their farm, has zero bargaining power and can be deleted with minimal effort.

Gradual changes for the better: Fortunately, consumers are waking up to the ugly truth about supermarkets and there is the beginning of a return to a local food economy. The UK went from having no farmers' markets at all in the mid-1990s to more than 270 at the end of the decade. At one, in Winchester, it was found that local shops reported 30 per cent greater takings on days when the market was open for business.


Friends of the Earth's briefing Super Markets or Corporate Bullies can be downloaded free from www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefings/super_markets_corporate_bullies.pdf

Find out about Manchester Friends of the Earth local Supermarket Campaigns