buy 95% of the food we eat in supermarkets. Four chains in Britain –
Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrison (now amalgamated with Safeway) are
responsible for two thirds of all supermarket sales. Tesco, the market leader,
alone accounts for 30% of all food sales. Supermarkets are central to the way
food production is organised under modern capitalism.
what? Aren’t they competing with each other for a market share? Isn’t the best
way for a firm to compete and bump up sales to mark down prices? Don’t people
shop in these places because they’re cheaper? So this is a sector where
am going to argue however that the competition between supermarket chains is
based on a systematic ratcheting down of standards across the board. Prices are
driven down by reducing production costs. And that inevitably means: 1) forcing
down the standards of living of the workers and small farmers who produce the
food they sell, 2) wrecking the environment, 3) destroying communities and 4)
all too often, poisoning the consumers.
economists like competition, they say it brings out the best in the system and
the big supermarket chains are certainly competing against each other. Every
time I walk round my local Sainsbury’s, signs constantly remind me of what the
Tesco price for the equivalent product is. But this competition between
supermarket chains is based on the collective monopoly they have over the
suppliers. Because they sell such a big proportion of the food we eat, they
have the whip hand over the suppliers. Economists call this buying power monopoly
of the food sold in supermarkets comes of course from farmers. Farmers, to many
workers, are the bastards dependent on handouts from Europe
who gave us mad cow disease! Cows are by nature vegetarian creatures, as a
quick trip to a field near you will establish. Farmers fed cows with the
remains of dead sheep in order to bump up their protein intake and get them to
produce more milk. In doing so they passed the sheep disease scrapie to cows
and it then jumped the species barrier to infect humans. So people died
horribly as their brains in effect turned to sponge. All to save a little
the story’s a bit more complicated than that. Farming is a capitalist industry.
It is dominated by big farmers, such as the "barley barons" of East Anglia.
They behave exactly like any other capitalist. But there are a lot of small
farmers out there as well. They are struggling. For years it has cost dairy
farmers 21pence to produce a litre of milk. But the supermarkets demand they
sell it to them for 18p. "Take it or leave it" is the message. The alternative
for the farmer, given the stranglehold supermarkets hold over supply to the
consumers, is to get nothing for the milk – to pour it away. A bigger farmer is
more able to diversify – to offset any supermarket sales by seeking alternative
outlets for their produce.
suppliers feel the pinch in the same way. In the first week of September it was
announced that Northern Foods in Old Trafford was to close its gates with the
loss of 600 jobs. They made pies and quiches, two thirds of which went to the
supermarkets. Relentless pressure to cut prices from their principal buyer,
Tesco, is to blame for the closure. One small food outlet a week goes to the
wall through this process – and Northern Foods is small fry compared to Tesco.
this pressure on small capitalists causes them to crack down on their workers.
The tragedy of the Chinese cockle pickers drowned at Morecambe Bay
shows that the gangmaster system is still alive and well. ‘Illegal’ migrant
workers criminalized by our immigration laws live thirty to a house, are bussed
out to work at the crack of dawn and have their pathetic wages subjected to
arbitrary deductions. All this is happening now to the "strawberry slaves"
employed by S&A in Herefordshire whom the Transport and General Workers
Union are trying to organise. S&A’s main customers are Tesco and
Sainsbury’s. This is the kind of thing that Marx and Engels wrote about over a
century ago. It still goes on, and the supermarkets are ringmasters of the
that survive are fleeced shamelessly by the big boys. They actually have to pay
the supermarkets to get their goods displayed. What is most sinister is that
this bullying is kept secret. Small firms dare not talk about it to journalists
and researchers for fear of losing their outlets. For a larger branded product
this is not a problem. The supermarket would get a lot of stick from customers
if it didn’t stock Heinz Baked Beans, for instance.
this murky world, the supermarkets are accused of other dubious practices. For
instance, they may be approached by a small capitalist with a good product
idea. Then they’ll copy the product and launch it nationally as an own label
brand. Patrick Holden of the Soil Association (the outfit that verifies organic
status) says, "A significant number of small organic businesses have suffered
from supermarkets switching suppliers or abandoning a brand in favour of own
label production. There is a tyranny about own label products that allows
supermarkets to abuse small producers."
also holds reverse auctions, where the lowest charging supplier wins. Marxists
believe that there is a tendency for capital to concentrate in bigger and
bigger units. This is because of economies of scale, the ability of bigger
firms to produce cheaper goods than smaller ones. But the rise of the
supermarkets to dominance is not the result of competing with small shops on a
level playing field. Supermarkets can insist on discounts that producers will not
give to independent shops.
is subject to the same cost cutting – and that’s a threat to our health.
points out in her book Not on the Label (Penguin Books, 2004) that,
"Chicken, like other animals, have become industrialised and globalised." The
poor old humble chicken is part of a global division of labour. She explains
how the body parts are shipped out all over the world, for instance gizzards to
Russia and chicken feet to China. But
there was one part they did not know how to sell – the skin. So they invented
the chicken nugget as a way of selling disguised skin together with
mechanically recovered meat. Yum!
case vegetarians are feeling smug at this point, they should read the next
chapter of this truly scary book – on salads. Bagged salad leaves are washed in
chlorine, the stuff they use in swimming pools. Lawrence comments, "Some chlorinated
compounds are known to be cancer-causing, but there appears to be little
research on foods treated with high doses of chlorine, the process having
evolved in an ad hoc way." So the real problem is capitalism, not what we
choose to eat.
nuggets are not very good for you. But they are an easy food for harassed
parents to serve up to their kids. It is easy to sneer at these parents, but it
really isn’t their fault. It’s not so easy to pick up a packet of processed
food in a supermarket and work out exactly what’s in it. Their kids are much
more likely to be obese than they were twenty years ago. Eating junk food is a
big part of the reason. Is it too outrageous to suggest that it ought to be
illegal to sell food that poisons our kids? Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt
says, "There’s only so much governments can do… People need to want to change
their lifestyles and take responsibility for their health." This government is
so in thrall to business interests that it’s not even prepared to fully support
a ban on junk food adverts targeted at kids. Some of us would like Hewitt to
‘take responsibility’ for being Health Minister and advocate a total
advertising ban on junk food aimed at children rather than the half-way house
now being proposed by Ofcom after much delay.
also play their part in mucking up the environment. Cost cutting means
intensive farming. That in turn means the excessive use of pesticides. These
kill the insects that skylarks eat. That’s why you’re less likely to hear
skylarks these days. Pesticides could also be poisoning us as rainwater runs
off the fields into the streams and into our water supply. In a previous
article (Capitalism and the environment) we dealt with over-fishing,
pointing out it was a result of the relentless pressure to come up with more
and more cheap fish on the supermarket shelves.
we know (see Capitalism and the environment) the main challenge facing
human beings on the planet earth is global warming. This is caused by the
emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. This may lead to climate
change, causing large parts of the earth’s surface to become uninhabitable.
Supermarkets are a major contributor to carbon emissions. Enter the shop and
you are confronted with a picture of permanent summer, with green beans flown
all the year round from Kenya
for instance. There are beans in Tesco with more "air miles" than the Secretary
General of the United Nations!
estimates by scientists have suggested that temperatures may rise by as much as
6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This could lead to more mass
extinctions than since the dinosaurs died out. The problem is that life forms
are dependent on each other in an ecosystem. For example, insects live on
plants and are eaten by birds. Let Dr. Tim Sparks of the Centre for Ecology and
Hydrology explain. "One of the biggest problems is that species don’t adapt to
warming at the same rate. So if you have a bird that feeds on an insect that
relies on a certain plant for food, and any one of these responds differently
to warming differently to the others, the whole system can break down." Can the
plant flee southward or northward as fast as the insects and birds? If not,
they’re all doomed.
has been estimated that to get a kilo of apples from New Zealand generates a kilo of
CO2, all of which contributes to global warming. For every calorie we get from
an iceberg lettuce flown from Los
Angeles, 127 calories are burned up in fuel. To get an
idea of the damage air transport does, recall the story of Barbara Haddrill.
Invited to a friend’s wedding in Australia, she decided to go by sea
and land and not to fly. She worked out that the flight would use up enough
energy per passenger to heat five homes for a whole year. This was a principled
decision by Barbara, but it’s not always an option for people. What is needed
is a complete change in the priorities imposed by capitalism.
is not an argument against an international division of labour. Clearly if we
were confined to British produce we would never have a cup of tea or coffee.
But when we read that we in Britain
export milk to Holland
and they export milk to us we have to ask, what the hell is going on?
airfreighting of food is not the only way supermarkets pile up carbon
emissions. They all have a centralised system of national distribution based on
a handful of huge "just-in-time" distribution bases. So orders placed from just
110 desks act as gatekeepers between 3.2 million farmers and 250 million
consumers. Often this means goods being shipped from one end of the country and
then being shipped back again. It also means, of course, that it won’t be as
fresh as if it came from down the road. Imagine how, in a planned economy,
these links would allow consumers to inform producers of what they want
collectively and ensure that their wants were met. Under capitalism these links
just give enormous power to the supermarket chains.
is a good thing in itself. We have hundreds of different species of strawberry
and literally thousands of different kinds of apple in this country alone. Yet
the only strawberry type you’ll find in a supermarket is the Elsanta. Why?
Because it’s tastier? Er, no. Because it’s a survivor. It can travel for
hundreds of miles in the back of a lorry and sit in a carton under artificial
light in a supermarket for over a week before being sold. It’s all about profits!
insist on displaying only ‘perfect’ fruit and vegetables on their shelves (such
as bright red apples that taste of nothing). This obviously means that tasty
but knobbly and misshapen fruit and vegetables are wasted on a grand scale. The
supermarkets don’t worry about this. They won’t buy them from the farmer, so
it’s the farmer that bears the cost. As counterpart to this, they also waste
resources through unnecessary packaging. Nature provides every cucumber with a
perfectly acceptable protection and wrapping called the skin. So why does every
supermarket bought cucumber have to be encased in plastic? Even mainstream
newspaper articles have ridiculed the notion of covering coconuts with a
wrapper. At this point the reader may be thinking to themselves, "Blimey,
capitalism produces starvation and war, and this bloke is going on about the
plastic on cucumbers." Fair point, but it’s just a small example of the waste
of resources of the capitalist mindset.
from workers, consumers’ health and the environment – the other victims of
supermarket power are local communities. The growth of out-of-town supermarkets
has led to what the New Economics Foundation calls ‘ghost town Britain’. Here
again dirty tricks are part of the story. Tesco has proved particularly adept
at manipulating the planning system. Whenever a superstore is opened, the local
paper will uncritically publish a press release.
street independent shops can’t compete on price with out-of-town supermarkets
and town centres go into decline. They become run-down, as shops are forced out
of business. Poor people are less likely to own cars, so they end up paying
more for basic foodstuffs in the town centre shops that aren’t boarded up.
is actually owned by Wal-Mart, which is, by some criteria, the biggest company
in the world. Wal-Mart employs nearly two million workers worldwide. In 2005 it
made $300 billion in sales from 6,600 stores around the globe. Bob Ortega
comments (in his book In Sam we trust – Wal-Mart was founded by Sam
Walton), "Wal-Mart’s executives have demonstrated an often breathtaking
contempt for laws and regulations. In the US, courts again and again have found
the company to have lied, to have illegally falsified, destroyed and withheld
documents, to have committed civil fraud, to have wilfully sold counterfeit
goods, to have deliberately discriminated against disabled job applicants, to
have illegally fired workers for interracial dating, to have discriminated
against black and Mexican employees in other ways, to have allowed managers to
sexually harass women workers – and to have fired women who had the temerity to
complain." You get the idea. That’s how Wal-Mart got where it is today.
Friedman has a different take on Wal-Mart. He is one of the foremost
ideologists of ‘globalisation’, the view that capitalism is all-powerful and
benign, and resistance to it is useless. In his book The world is flat,
he looks saucer-eyed at their distribution centre in Bentonville, Arkansas
and rhapsodises, "Call it ‘the Wal-Mart symphony in multiple movements’ – with
no finale." And goes on to comment, "Its role as one of the ten forces that
flattened (globalised) the world is undeniable."
reader may find all this one-sided. Haven’t we all seen those Waitrose ads
where they demand that the farmers who supply them leave wider field edges so
dormice and barn owls can thrive? They’re all heart! Of course it’s the farmer
who’s likely to lose out, not Waitrose. And we’ll be encouraged to pay a
premium at the checkout because we’re all softies. The enemy is not the
supermarket chains. The enemy is the capitalist system. But capitalism has
evolved the supermarket system as the orchestral conductor of food production,
in so far as there is one. Through competition, they dictate terms to all the
other players. We need to take them over as part of the socialist
transformation of society.