SchNEWS on supermarkets & agriculture

Mark.S.Brown msbrown at
Fri Mar 2 20:20:39 GMT 2001

from this week's SchNEWS

Published in Brighton by Justice? - Brighton's Direct Action collective

ISSUE 295, FRIDAY 2nd March, 2001


"If you have local food and local shops, things may go wrong but they don't
spread like this" - Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, Thames Valley

In case you haven't noticed the foot and mouth disease outbreak has spread
right across the country. Hardly surprising as livestock is routinely
transported all around the UK, Europe and beyond. Let's face it Britain's
agriculture is a mess: BSE, genetically modified foods, pesticide residues
and now foot and mouth. So what's gone wrong?

In 1939 13% of the population worked on farms, now its only 2%. Today's food
production has more in common with an industrial production line. Each year
860 million farm animals are slaughtered, the vast majority of these reared
intensively in overcrowded conditions, leading to the rapid spread of
disease and the routine use of antibiotics.

The production of fruit and veg isn't much different, crops are grown in
huge monoculture plots and routinely sprayed with pesticides: e.g. lettuces
are sprayed 15 times. Considering that England is an ideal climate for
growing apples it's crazy that we now consume more French ones than English!

Supermarkets' Sweep Up

"Outside economic forces have done me in. You have no control over prices,
everything is set by outsiders. It doesn't matter how well you farm, it just
gets harder and harder" - Ex-farmer.

The big four supermarkets sell over half our food in the UK. This dominance
gives them a stranglehold on producers. Supermarkets know that farmers have
little choice and dictate which varieties should be produced, how animals
should be kept, and what chemicals need to be sprayed, and when. In return
for their efforts farmers receive minimum prices for their products. A
survey found that apples were being sold at nearly double the price that
farmers were getting for them, and eggs four times as much. And if the
produce isn't uniform in size, shape and colour farmers have to throw the
food away and get nothing.

Tescos are now trying to have only three suppliers for each of their
products. So if you're a farm that gets a contract you can grow and grow
(well unless you fall out of favour cos' your tomatoes aren't juicy enough),
if not, then hard luck. And despite the increasing supermarkets claims to
support British farmers the amount we import from abroad is increasing, and
even food that is British probably isn't local - in the last 20 years the
average distance our food travels within the UK has doubled (SchNEWS 283).

So if farmers are getting shafted by supermarkets why aren't they protesting
about this rather than the price of fuel? Well they did. In 1998, enraged by
the fall in the amount they received for their meat, they blockaded ports
and supermarkets. The action forced the government to carry
out an investigation, but the Office of Fair Trading couldn't see that the
supermarkets were doing anything wrong, so nothing changed. A recent survey
by the National Farmers Union found that 98% of farmers believe that their
futures would be more secure if they went back to basics and selling direct
to the public. But most are too scared to speak out, in case they loose
their 'contracts' i.e. livelihood and home.

          * British supermarkets are roughly three times more
          profitable than similar companies in France, Germany,
          Italy and Spain.

          * Last year Sainsbury's made a meagre 580 million pre
          tax profits and Tesco's an embarrassing 955 million-
          how do they cope?

          * Lord Sainsbury, the former Chief Executive of
          Sainsbury's, is the richest man in Britain, and a
          Labour peer.


Supermarkets may have destroyed our farming industry, but they've given us
convenience, choice, jobs and cheap goods. But hey, wait a minute lets look
at how convenient and how much choice they really offer us. Call us
old-fashioned but how convenient is it to get to an out of town shopping
centre, rather than pop to your local shop (especially if you've got no
car). When supermarkets move into an area small shops go down the pan. A
government report in 1998 concluded that food shops in market towns lost
between 13 and 50% of their trade when a supermarket opened. In 1950 there
were 221,662 food shops in Britain by 1997 this had fallen to just under
37,000. Is that what they call more choice?

What about job creation?Well, supermarkets employ one-fifth of the staff per
unit area than smaller shops, and how can working in a supermarket compare
to working in a local store? But at least the supermarkets are cheap, aren't
they? It may come as a surprise but they're not. Although
they tempt you in with cheap bread and baked beans, loads of their other
stuff is more expensive. Independent specialist shops have been found to be
30 percent cheaper than the big chains, and if you buy direct from your
local farmer or farmers' markets then the savings are even greater.

Despite all this the popularity of supermarkets appears to be growing and it
may feel like there's nothing we can do to stop them. Their growth may be
due to lazy-car driver-shove-it-in-the-microwave mentality. But they've also
curried favour with politicians, influencing policy so that they can build
what they want where they want, even in National Parks. Supermarkets also
bribe councils with roads and community centres in return for building their
stores. In Brighton, Sainsbury's look set to be allowed to build next to the
station despite everybody wishing they would get lost. In return they are
willing to bribe the council with building a road.


So what can you do to undermine the supermarkets' dominance? Simple, don't
shop at 'em if you can help it.

* Go to your local market or greengrocer, you may be surprised at how cheap
they are. Try to find out if there's a farmers market in the area, where
farmers sell their own produce direct. 01225-787914

* Grow your own food. Get a list of allotment sites from your local
authority or squat a bit of unused land! Alternatively you can join a City
Farm, details from The Federation of City Farms

* Campaign against more supermarkets. BUDD (Brighton Urban Design and
Development) are opposing Sainsbury's development at Brighton station.

* To find out more about supermarkets' power within the government and other
dodgy things, read George Monbiot's book, Captive State, published by


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