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How super are supermarkets?

Buying the week’s groceries is not what they call shopping therapy. You want to get it over and done with quickly, so you head for the nearest supermarket, you find everything you need under one roof, and you feel glad that those days of going in and out of different shops in the high street are over, and that terrible music they play doesn’t even bother you any longer. Supermarkets seem to be a big plus. There is a downside, though.

In the UK 90% of all the food people consume is bought at 5 different supermarket chains. This makes these companies extremely powerful, especially when it comes to determining the terms of contracts with the smaller companies that supply them. Supermarkets use their huge buying power to squeeze suppliers to get the best deal. Milk is a good example. Supermarkets like to use things like milk and bread, which are at the top of almost everyone’s shopping list, to attract customers. To offer the lowest price possible to the consumer, the supermarkets force dairy farmers to sell milk at less than the cost of production. (On average, most UK dairy farms operate at a loss and can only survive with the help of subsidies.) Supermarkets keep their profit margin while farmers are left strugglling to make ends meet, and the taxpayer unwittingly pays to prop the system up.

It would be nice if local grocers supported local agriculture. But for the big supermarkets this just doesn’t make sense. You don’t want little farmers thinking they can dictate prices. So supermarkets have started a global search for the cheapest possible agricultural produce. In many supermarkets it is difficult to find anything which is produced locally.

UK farmers used to grow a lot of apples. Not anymore. In 1961 36% of apples were imported. By 1999 the figure had risen to 80% and the domestic production of apples had fallen by two thirds.

To illustrate the influence of the supermarkets’ new global strategy, a recent report came up with the following breakdown of a typical Sunday lunch for one supermarket shopper:

Chicken from Thailand 10,691 miles by ship
Runner beans from Zambia 4,912 miles by plane
Carrots from Spain 1000 miles by lorry
Potatoes from Italy 1521 miles by lorry
Total 18,124 miles

That’s well over half way round the globe. For one meal. Not including pudding.

The consumer might just be happy to get a reasonably priced meal, but we should also bear in mind the impact on local producers, local retailers and the environment (transporting all that produce around the world does nothing to limit the production of greenhouse gases).

Then there’s packaging. Supermarkets like everything to be packed and wrapped so it can be stacked neatly on shelves. Supermarket produce generates nearly 10 million tons of discarded packaging in the UK every year, of which less than 5% is recycled. Some supermarkets make sure that large recycling bins are prominent in their car parks, thereby creating the image that they have an environmental conscience. But that is just an image.

As an indication of their green credentials we can recall what happened when people tried to persuade supermarkets to handle reusable bottles for a range of the drinks they sold. It makes much more sense to reuse bottles than to smash them up and recycle the glass. Supermarkets, in Britain at least, refused to handle them: no returnable bottles would be accepted. For them, the profit motive could not be compromised by environmental considerations. Making people pay for plastic bags that used to be free – that’s a good idea. Letting people return their bottles that take up space in the supermarket and slow down the work of the cashier – no, no, we can’t have that.

There is also a question mark over the quality of the supposedly fresh food sold by supermarkets. To store produce so that it can be sold at a higher price out of season or to keep it “fresh” while it is being transported across entire continents suppliers inevitably use preservatives to inhibit the natural rotting process.

Supermarkets claim they maintain the highest standards. However, their insistence that fruit and vegetables come in a standard shape or size means that some local varieties are rejected (which is what happened to English apples) and this is one of the factors reducing biodiversity. It also often rules out organically grown produce, where the size is often smaller and the shape more irregular.

Regulations can also be used to eliminate competition. A two-week old processed yoghurt in a supermarket chiller can be considered safe, according to health and safety standards, while a yoghurt sold direct from a farmhouse kitchen is deemed a health hazard. In this way, many small producers don’t even get a chance to compete for a share of the market.

Despite the system of hygiene regulations that creates so many problems for small local producers, the latest food-poisoning scandals have resulted from the mass-production methods which had previously been given the stamp of approval by the health and safety committees.

When a new supermarket is planned there are reassuring claims about the number of new jobs that will be created. Unfortunately the number of retail jobs lost in the area exceeds the number of new positions in the supermarket. Within a 15km radius of every new supermarket that opens the total number of people employed in the food business declines. On average each new supermarket entails the loss of 276 jobs.

Because the biggest and newest supermarkets are big outside town centres where land is cheaper and it is easier to build the adjacent car park the rise of the supermarket has helped to exacerbate the demise of the British town centre. Judging by the number of boarded up shops in English town centres you would think that the economy has hit an all time low. It hasn't. It's just that the shopping has moved out of town. What's left behind is, quite frankly, ugly.

Anyone who dispassionately weighed up the pros and cons of supermarkets would quickly come to the conclusion that drastic measures need to be taken. Perhaps even demolition. But this is unlikely to come about. The (post-) modern world is all about shopping, and the freedom to buy whatever you want, so it would be outrageous for our political leaders to try to stop people shopping at some particular kind of shop, and without the political will to change public opinion people will just carry on shopping wherever it is most convenient for them, even if jobs are lost, agriculture and local producers suffer, sea levels rise and the health of the nation declines. Who cares about all that anyway when there is a free car park and so many special offers?