SchNEWS on Foot and Mouth Disease and corporate ag
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 University.
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 lose 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
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 www.farmermarkets.net
* 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 www.farmgarden.org.uk
* Campaign against more supermarkets. BUDD (Brighton Urban Design and Development) are opposing Sainsbury’s development at Brighton station. 01273-681166, www.solarcity.co.uk/BUDD
* To find out more about supermarkets’ power within the government and other dodgy things, read George Monbiot’s book, Captive State, published by MacMillan.