Shelf Abuse

Supermarkets wield immense power over the way we grow, buy and eat our food. They are shaping our environment, our health and the way we interact socially. By the Biophile Team.

These changes have gone unchallenged because consumers have been sucked into superstore lifestyles, persuaded that the opportunity to select from six different brands of cut-price oven chips represents choice and value.

But the tide may be turning. Unease at the true cost of supermarket food is spreading among consumers, who are beginning to join forces with the farmers and workers who have always known that supermarket “choice” is a bad deal. To provide customers with the huge variety of inexpensive food that they promise, supermarkets ruthlessly exploit their effective monopoly as the biggest buyers of food. They dictate how, where, when and for how much their food is produced, packaged, stored and delivered. At the heart of this is many supermarkets’ refusal to enter into binding contractual agreements with suppliers, thus leaving them with no redress against supermarket exploitation.

The Cheap Food Mantra “Stack it High, Sell it Low!”
It is a fact that supermarkets have achieved an awesome and audacious feat of logistics. They have created for themselves a supply chain that moves with synchronicity and efficiency to transport millions of tonnes of “cheap food” onto the shelves each day (known in the jargon as “Efficient Consumer Response”), and to make a healthy profit for themselves and their shareholders.

What we don’t see in these convenient slick strip-lit superstores, as we patiently wait in queues with strangers, surrounded by colourful packets of poisonous sweets (see Biophile issue 2 “The sweetest poison of all”) as we desperately try to distract our children who are being pulled in every direction by the clever ploy to tempt them to pick up the next thing they are addicted to, or have been conned into thinking they need… is the millions of acres of chemical intensive monoculture plantations, the often exploited farmers, farm labourers, packers and canners, the devastated rural communities and the carbon dioxide belching transport networks.

As we roll our trolleys down endless spotless aisles, jam packed with every conceivable size, shape, smell and taste that we could dream of while advertising companies are working overtime and being paid fortunes to persuade the gullible ignorant public to buy more and more of everything, that is for the most part, not only lacking in the essential nutrients to keep us healthy, but really bad for us. The hospitals are full of patients with diet related cancers, late onset diabetes (now epidemic in children) and obesity due to the excessive levels of sugar, salt, poisonous fats, refined and processed foods that the food companies manufacture to make money to keep their shareholders happy.

Food is flown in from all over the world to keep the people buying and the profits soaring, regardless of the environmentally devastating chain of events that it takes to get it there.

So, behind the excessive choice and convenience there is a massive hidden cost
And even if you are aware of this, it is still not easy to avoid these super-stores, that stock every conceivable thing for a one-stop shop. The smaller family owned speciality shops have boarded up their shop windows years ago, and simply don’t exist any more.
On the whole it is much more difficult to support the local farmers and communities nowadays, knowing that our money will be going to create jobs, instead we are forced to support distant and remote shareholders of giant corporations, whose only concern is the money they make, not the poisonous farming methods, diminishing diversity, the jobless people and broken up families, the land fills that are full, and the devastating contribution to global warming that they ignore.

While supermarkets claim to create jobs, evidence from the UK National Retail Planning Forum, says otherwise. According to figures collected in that country, “the opening of a superstore costs an area an average of 276 local jobs, not only in retail but also in farming, distribution, maintenance, etc.” The lack of accountability on all levels is allowing these monsters to run wild leaving behind them a wake of destruction.

Super markets have tremendous buying power, often playing one farmer off against the next to get the lowest prices
They arrogantly take extended credit from suppliers (usually 60 or 90 days) who can ill afford it and more often than not charge the suppliers with returns from their bad handling —but for fear of being de-listed, nothing is said. Look around you and see how many of them are in the financial services businesses —they make fortunes from not paying their suppliers for a couple of months and taking the cash upfront from their customers.

Price is the all pervading question and “return on shelf space” the most important issue. It does not matter whether the goods come from some distant poor country that can hardly feed itself, and then via the intensive fossil fuel transportation systems that’s contributing to the demise of our planet. It does not matter whether the farming methods are poisoning the people, land and the water. It does not matter whether the products are genetically modified or not, or whether the diversity of our crops is being severely reduced to allow for massive low cost soulless farming operations. It does not matter that the products are no longer nutritious or that they are picked unripe and ripened by artificial means. It does not matter how or what the products are packaged in, and whether the packaging is detrimental to our health like plastic or aluminium cans. It does not matter that the land fills are full of methane gas producing waste from their packaging, contributing to the already severe global warming problem or that landfills are full of poisonous stuff that does not biodegrade.

It does not matter whether this packaging is recycled or recyclable, they make no effort to assist with this by placing recycling bins in the stores. It does not matter that the food is poisonous, so long as it is packaged in something attractive and it sells. Return on shelf space is all they care about, and don’t let them con you into thinking anything else —that is all that matters.

What are we doing and where are we going?
When are we going to start being accountable and when are we going to take these arrogant fat cats who sit in their ivory towers, making millions, to task?

They are also preventing the development of a vibrant and exciting local food economy. Just think: supermarkets could become real market centres again, owned by their local communities and producers, where farmers from the local region would sell their seasonal produce, and local producers would bring their wares. All products from further afield would be fairly traded and imported by small companies. There does not need to be exploitation in the food system.

And for dessert… what can you do about it?
There are alternatives to supermarkets that are community focused, environmentally sustainable and gathering momentum. What they need is your support. Individual and local action:
• Take an interest in where your food comes from
• Support small, independent suppliers, processors and retailers
• Buy imported goods only when they cannot be grown in this country
• Encourage small retailers to stock locally produced food
• Help set up new methods of distribution locally, e.g.. co-operatives for marketing local produce locally, consumer co-operatives to buy healthy food in bulk for your community and delivery schemes
• Consider becoming vegetarian or vegan as a way of reducing your own support for industrial farming methods
• Support local farmers by using their farm shops and organic box schemes and going to farmer’s markets
• Set up a community shop. Find out about community-owned retailing
• Support farmer’s actions to end their exploitation at the hands of the supermarkets.

Yes, we deserve affordable food, but we also deserve healthy food, healthy communities, thriving small businesses, a healthy countryside and a fair wage for producers.

Buy as little as you possibly can from the supermarkets and let them know why you are not supporting them. The dependence on fast convenience foods, “cool drinks”, sweets, gadgets, excessive toys (for all ages!), and all the other things that can be found at the supermarkets has insidiously crept into our culture thanks to the clever advertising and the insatiable desire to make more and more money. There are not many people and especially the children that go to the “shops” and don’t expect a drink or sweet of some sort. The waste is incomprehensible —most goes into the land fills. Between 1990 and 2000, for example, Americans (we don’t have the SA stats, but what ever they are, it’s too much, so please recycle and support Collect-A-Can) threw away 7 million tons of aluminium cans, enough to rebuild the world’s entire aircraft fleet 25 times over (World Watch). But instead of recycling discarded aluminium which would use 95% less energy than smelting virgin aluminium, new mines were gouged out of pristine ecosystems, disrupting them and the communities that depend on them.

Buy from small (preferably organic) stores and markets, they are around if you take the time to find out. It may take a little bit more effort but it is well worth it. It is also lovely to develop friendly relationships with these like-minded people. Take your own bags and see how little waste you have at the end of the week! These small outlets rarely package their goods. The vegetables are fresh and from the local farmers.

Buy local and in season —this is a golden rule.
Simplify your life and live according to the saying… “live simply so others can simply live”.
If you don’t know how to grow your fruit and vegetables join a gardening club or go on a course and learn. It may be one of the most important things you ever do! Even if you live in a small space it is still possible to grow food. Window boxes and old tyres can be used very effectively.

The Rise of Supermarkets in Africa:
In South Africa, food is the most concentrated sector of the retailers, with the top 4 chains comprising 95% of the market. The three largest retailers in South Africa are Metro Cash and Carry (Wholesale), Shoprite/Checkers and Pick ‘n Pay (both food retailers).
The rapid rise of supermarkets in Africa is made possible by urbanisation and the rise of the middle class—but goes well beyond those drivers, because supermarkets are extending into poor neighbourhoods of large cities and towns all around the developing world, including in Africa.

Through efficient procurement systems, the new trend in the region is “supermarkets for the poor”, a diffusion and extension of supermarkets away from being mere luxury top-end niches to being mass market merchandisers. The impact of this has been huge. The scale of procurement is typically much larger and requires both volumes and co-ordination among suppliers and between suppliers and retailers and/or intermediaries. Also, supermarkets are typically more demanding as to quality and safety standards., while these changes might provide opportunities for some suppliers to broaden and deepen their markets and raise their incomes, for others, especially the smaller subsistence farmers and firms, they imply huge challenges and the risk of exclusion from the transforming food economy. Most of these small farmers have simply lost their businesses. The impact has rippled out, further reducing the already hugely inequitable distribution of income and raising the incidence of poverty. The environmental impact has also been disastrous as these massive farms rely heavily on chemical methods of production. The loss of bio-diversity is also a cause for grave concern, as monocultures are encouraged.

South African food retailing is composed of two dramatically different sectors: the informal sector (hawkers, small stands, and spazas), and the formal sector. We do not have statistics on the breakdown between the two sectors. It is probable however, that although many people are employed as hawkers and spaza owners, their share of total retail turnover is small. In the formal sector (upon which we focus here), there are approximately 70,000-75 000 stores. Comprising of hypermarkets, supermarkets are “superettes”
Supermarkets started early in South Africa, but have grown rapidly only recently (in particular, since the end of apartheid in 1994). This is illustrated below in the meteoric rise of Shoprite/Checkers and Pick ‘n Pay in only the past 10 years.

The South African supermarket sector is highly consolidated in the hands of four main chains —Shoprite/Checkers and Pick ‘n Pay, with roughly 80% of the supermarket sector, approximately 40% each, and Spar and Woolworths, with 10% of the supermarket sector, approximately 5% each.

During the second half of the 1990s and accelerating today we have seen the opening of small supermarkets in poorer areas by means of franchising (such as the Family Stores of Pick ‘n Pay). Before the end of apartheid, supermarkets were not allowed to locate in townships, but competitive pressure (and relatively saturated markets) at the top end of the market (for example, from Woolworths) has pushed both Shoprite and Pick ‘n Pay to expand into townships.

As the larger urban areas reach saturation point these faceless giants start moving into these once simple, self-sustaining areas. Western culture and diet starts to insidiously creep into the system and so the rot sets in on every level. Instead of growing their own food, people become reliant on the convenience of supermarket foods. Through clever advertising, status is coupled with buying power, and so our diets become full of refined chemically laden foods.

Coca-Cola, sugar, white bread, white mealie meal or other more “glamorous” alternatives become the order of the day. Obesity is rife, especially amongst women, and diseases related to dysfunctional immune systems are becoming more and more prevalent. The pressure is on to make more money so they can buy more things Families are moving away from community-based lifestyles in which they grew up to the cramped urban sprawls of bigger centres. The strategies are carefully planned as supermarkets expand in whichever direction they possibly can. The planning and execution process very rarely includes the impact of their actions on the culture of the people, the poorer communities, the environment or the animals… it is totally dominated by the fear and greed related to the bottom line.

There is more sickness, more violence, more crime, more environmental devastation, more waste, more chaos and less peace and love as family cohesion and support diminish.

And so the expansion continues as these global giants make their way across the planet. It is a game, a dangerous, ego driven competitive game run by egocentric, power hungry, megalomaniacs and it’s time we all woke up to the fact that we cannot expect peace in our lives if we don’t put peaceful things into our bodies.

Leading scientific bodies in the UK and the US, The Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences, said in joint report in July 2000:
“Modern agriculture is intrinsically destructive of the environment. It is particularly destructive of biological diversity. The widespread application of conventional agricultural technologies has resulted in severe environmental damage in many parts of the world. Modern agriculture causes about one quarter of the risk of climate change.”