Over-hyped markets

In today’s Guardian Comment, George Monbiot discusses the impact that Tesco’s massive growth has on our lives.

[Rant on] The point he raises about farmers having to jump when Mr Supermarket Man tells them to was the key determinant in our switching to local shops that stock local produce. We still make a weekly trip to Shitways for recycled loo roll and other modern conveniences we have yet to wean ourselves from. And whenever we make a trip to M&S, Sainsbury’s or Tesco, it never fails to amaze us how uniform the produce look, blemish-free and standard sized. Supermarkets have perfected the art of stacking veggies on shelves and extending shelf lives of fruit, all on demand. But at whose expense? Certainly not the consumer’s (unless you’re after exotics like mangoes or fancy potatoes). Milk prices paid to farmers are ridiculously low compared to what we pay at the checkout, yet supermarkets view milk as a loss leader. A quick search on the Office of Fair Trading‘s website pulls up a 2004 OFT review of supermarkets’ code of practice, which highlights suppliers’ dissatisfaction with supermarkets, but no specific cases against the supermarkets. Farmers fear being dropped from supplier lists, and don’t have anyone to speak for them (I’m not referring to the wealthy estates who are quite able to take care of themselves). An excerpt from the review:

The CC said [snip] that ‘almost all the complainants were extremely reluctant to be named, or indeed to name the multiple or multiples that were the subject of their complaints.’ There appeared to the CC to be a climate of apprehension among many suppliers in their relationship with supermarkets.

From section 3.1 of the 2004 OFT review of the operation of the supermarkets code of practice.

Tightening up the code of practice is all very well, but if you can’t get farmers to speak up or even realise demands made on them are unfair, you can’t make a case against the supermarkets. Plus, they can get lawyered up. On top of that, if the supermarkets are pushed too hard, they’ll just pull out of using British suppliers altogether, move on to Africa with more disastrous consequences. You just can’t win.

As for farming magazines, they really are just written advertisements for the latest multivitamin protein-rich feed, shiny new tractors, or some other multinational corporation’s product. The same companies you see handing out freebies everywhere at the agricultural shows (if you’re giving things away, are you making too much money off the farmers?). And don’t get me started on bloody Belgian Blues or double-bummed sheep. Belgian Blue cows cannot deliver their calves naturally; they require caesareans1. [Rant off]

And now supermarkets turn their attention to newspapers and magazines? Ha! Good luck with that! At least journalists can articulate their discontent, and don’t need to be in print medium to do so.

For more on the invasion of the shopping trolley, have a look at Corporate Watch’s article: What’s wrong with supermarkets?.

Also in today’s news, the BBC reported the impending death of small farms: small farms may vanish. While trying not to be too sentimental about the loss of smallholdings, I can’t see how developers can be prevented from further encroaching on green belts if fields aren’t being farmed.

1The article compares cows to heifers as mothers, not the effects of caesareans on cows and calves.

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6 thoughts on “Over-hyped markets

  1. Supermarkets can play suppliers i.e. farmers off against eachother and there’s little they can do about it. This is one of the problems of an undifferentiated market where consumers see little difference in one coloured carbohydrate from another. Nor are the particularly encouraged to. The marketing here is that the supermarket will painstakingly sought out the best of any produce. The other forces are that small local producers are forced out by the desire to have national homgeneity so more or less every supermarket in Australia will be identical and the bias is towards multinational produce. Apart from a more educated and aggressive consumer, which would be ideal, wheat farmers in Australia have had great success in collective selling or the “one desk” policy. This gives them much greater bargaining power and assure they do very well.

  2. Ugh. I’m sorry to hear it’s happening down under too. I agree that co-ops are the way forward for small producers. The short term alternative is for them to target local speciality shops or farmers’ markets, but only the more affluent or well-connected farmers are able to do that.

    As for the educated and aggressive consumer, it’s probably fair to say that most people don’t have the time nor energy, and unless they have a vested interest (eg children to feed) or earn a moderate income, won’t make the extra effort. (Goodness knows I didn’t when I was a poor student…)

  3. There’s kind of a second tier of supermarkets which are locally owned and are much more suuportive of local producers. A good argument could be made that they exist because of government restrictions on trading hours. The are good ourcomes for good rule settings.

    I also think too much leeway is given to not enough time, energy or income. There are small and cheap differences which can be made and it’s just a matter of caring (and it’s not just a foodie thing, it’s fundamental) about what you eat and where it comes from. Not being a food nazi about these things but there has to be a cultural shift and this takes a bit of bugging.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. As a conflict of interest disclosure, I am the son of a wheat and sheep farmer. : )

  4. I, too, have to declare a vested interest: my partner’s parents have a cattle and sheep smallholding in Scotland.

    I am in total agreement with you on the responsiblities of consumers. In an ideal world, we would all care enough about where our food comes from or how it gets to us, and our culture of convenience needn’t be one that disadvantages the producer.

    “Satlinism of convenience” is a very nice phrase indeed! I shall have to find a way to drop it into conversation. But I must confess the rest of the post went whooshing past over my head.

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