Argus title : A homegrown food rebelliion

This week I made a decision – and a resolution.

After months of delay and prevarication, and 35 lazy years of buying from the supermarket, I have finally decided to order a regular weekly vegetable box. It’ll contain organic vegetables in season, sourced, I hope, from Sussex.

The resolution I’ve made is to buy from supermarkets only if I’m sure I can’t find what I want elsewhere. I’ll use markets when I can and old-fashioned greengrocers when they’re available – even if their produce costs a bit more.

The fact is I’ve grown weary of being forced to buy big bags of potatoes that I don’t need and which taste mouldy and sprout after just a day or two. I’m sick of “fresh” food that’s been stored for 18 months, yellowing brassicas, and soft tomatoes rotting gently under supermarket lights, jet-lagged fruit and imported flowers stuffed into buckets without water.

Time and again, my family and I have narrowed the range of items we feel we can safely buy. First we gave up fish. That was after a spectacular bout of food poisoning following a visit to a local supermarket. Then I stopped buying non-organic meat. That was after I’d bought sausages which were supposedly in date, but which stank like a charnel house when I unsealed the plastic covering.

I’ve always tried to buy British food, but this too has become difficult. Despite heightened awareness of the environmental damage caused by transporting food across the world by air, it is becoming more and not less difficult to find British-grown food and British-produced goods on supermarket shelves. Notwithstanding the anti-European trumpeting of certain newspapers, there is surprisingly little on offer from European countries. As for the poor old Commonwealth, it’s a definite also-ran. The supermarkets claim to offer choice, but this is far from the case.

Since the USA invaded Iraq I have chosen not to buy American produce. However, this has been difficult to maintain, given that our supermarkets often purchase American apples in preference to our own fine apple crop and source much of their orange juice, not from Europe, but from the USA.

Given the oppressive nature of the Israeli regime, I choose not to buy Israeli goods, but this too is becoming problematic. It’s become almost impossible to find fresh herbs in supermarkets which have not been imported from Israel – even those such as parsley and sage that traditionally are grown in Britain. Even potatoes, which were once almost exclusively from Jersey, the British mainland or Ireland, are now increasingly imported from Israel. Similarly, tomatoes which used to come from Britain, Spain or Italy, are now flown in from Israel.

Global warming has brought earlier springs and hotter summers so should ensure a wider choice of British crops. In fact, the contrary is the case.

I asked a Sainsbury’s manager about Sainsbury’s purchasing policy. He assured me that the policy is to buy British in the first instance and thereafter source goods internationally, seeking out secure supply and the best prices. He did not mention environmental impact – nor did he acknowledge that state or other subsidies to foreign suppliers, or poverty wages and poor conditions for their farm workers, could assist them to undercut suppliers from Britain.

The manager assured me that political considerations do not affect Sainsbury’s purchasing policy. In the past, managers of other supermarkets have said the same. I told him that given what was on sale, I found it hard to believe that Sainsbury’s always buys British as a first option.

A brief visit to the relatively small stalls of Brighton’s Open Market revealed a far larger supply of cheap, high-quality British-grown vegetables and herbs than is offered in local supermarkets.

As I wandered around the vegetable displays of local supermarkets, I wondered how much they had been affected by the Chinese cocklepickers’ deaths at Morecamb Bay. These deaths brought increased scrutiny of the activities of gang-masters who organise vast numbers of migrant farm labourers. Greater scrutiny may well have increased the costs – and risks – associated with “buying British”.

Just over a year ago, Sainsbury’s, ASDA and Tesco were forced to launch an inquiry into the activities of Bomford’s one of their major vegetable suppliers in Britain. This followed an investigation by the Gangmaster Licensing Authority, which resulted in seven of Bomford’s “labour providers” losing their licences for infringements. There had been persistent reports of pay below the minimum wage and appalling conditions.

What emerged from investigations at that time was that, while supermarkets were making huge profits, the hourly costs of suppliers were being forced down to a level which did not allow them to pay the minimum wage and other legally required costs such as national insurance and holiday pay. Shortly after investigation, Bomfords went into administration and was sold on.

The strawberry industry is worth £150m a year and relies on migrant labour. In 2006 Sainsbury’s and Tesco were forced to investigate claims by the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) that migrant workers picking strawberries for a major supermarket supplier – S&A Produce Ltd – had been working up to 14 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, in sweltering heat. S&A denied the allegations.

Supermarkets identify what are known as Known Value Items (KVIs). These are staple items such as bread and milk, the prices of which can be easily compared by customers with those supplied in other shops. Supermarkets keep KVI prices artificially low, squeezing producers, in order to attract customers into the shops. Other items can then be charged at a higher level than in other stores.

The artificially low price of supermarket milk, often sold below cost price, has caused great suffering to Britain’s dairy farmers who have no choice but to sell to the supermarkets. As a result, small dairies have gone to the wall and the doorstep delivery has all but vanished from many parts of Britain. Similarly, the artificially low cost of bread and other items has caused many independent bakers and green-grocers to close.

Other European countries, such as France, Spain and Ireland, forbid the sale of goods below cost price, because they recognise the social and economic costs of this practice. Here in Britain however where the supermarkets have huge lobbying power, governments have allowed private profit to rule public policy.

Rory Bremner, John Bird and John Fortune in their book entitled “You are Here” write: “super¬markets take advantage of economies of scale, ‘Compete local, source global’ is the rule, with supermarkets playing off one area or country against another and then pricing to eliminate competitors in the local high street. The result is a huge move¬ment of goods, often across thousands of miles. A study in Ludlow, Shropshire, showed that while local shops sourced much of their produce from the immediate area, the town’s supermarkets sold virtually no locally produced goods”.

They add: “Out-of-season Coxes are imported 14,000 miles from New Zealand during our own apple season, while British produce lies rotting on the ground In France, 90% of all the apples sold in supermarkets are produced domestically; in the UK the figure is only 25%.” They note that between 1961 and 1999 “60% of our orchards were destroyed, and production fell by two thirds.” The environmental cost is catastrophic, not least because it takes up to 2.2 litres of kerosene to air-freight just I pound of fruit and vegetables across the world.

Of recent years, supermarkets have added alcohol to their list of below-cost KVIs. The sale of cut-price alcohol has a dual function. It attracts customers and hooks a new generation of addicted drinkers, securing future profits and adding immeasurably to the alcohol-related health burden borne by this country’s people.

The ultimate irony is that while our apple orchards are laid waste because supermarkets will not buy our fruit, our young people are destroyed by cost-price “white cider”, which, as Professor Ian Gilmore, President of the Royal College of Physicians, has said “has never seen an apple”. Young people can get drunk on 3 litres of 7.5% alcohol for less than £3.00.

But hey, who cares? The profits roll in and the donations to political parties keep coming.
Governments don’t have the courage to face down the supermarkets and the farmers haven’t the muscle. The truth is nothing is likely to change until we the consumers start to stand up to supermarkets…and the best way to do that is to hit them where it hurts – in their pockets.

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