I have mentioned before that I am reading the above book by Joanna Blythman, and I am still wading through it. As usual it has given rise to some heated debate in our household. Having sounded off to Whizz a few times and received his Capitalist Dog opinion on it all I am now ready to put my own opinion on paper.
My first observation is that Ms Blythman has used an awful lot of words to state what could have been written in a report of about one third the size – and with proper references to her sources. She bangs on an awful lot about the tasteless state of the food sold by supermarkets due largely to short cuts forced on manufacturers as their profit margins are pared to the bone. She’s probably right but I have said it in a couple of sentences.
In other things though she is very informative: In the case of fruit and vegetables she says that the number of varieties available to us from supermarkets is a mere fraction of the cornucopia of fruit and veg. we could be eating. The supermarkets choose their produce more for its “handleability” than its taste. There is also the fact that fruit and veg are picked green and ripened en route, on shelf, in our fridges or, in many cases not at all before we eat them. This of course affects the flavour and the smell. She goes on to say that the supermarkets demand all produce throughout the year no matter from where it comes so we have got used to strawberries in December and mange touts in February which takes away the pleasure of getting these items lovely and fresh in their own seasons.
She tells us that small high street shops and wholesale businesses are being driven to bankruptcy because they can’t compete. She says that growers are forced into crippling conditions without any consideration for their needs. We are informed that all our fruit and veg are intensively farmed and therefore full of chemicals that nature never intended and that there is nothing the farmers can do to stop it.
The supermarkets have grown into huge international companies and their buying power has increased in line with the growth. It means that they can demand terms that no supplier would choose. In short, Ms Blythman paints the supermarkets as the evil perpetrators of sins against producers, food quality, architecture and our high streets.
I had already decided to boycott supermarkets before I read “Shopped”. A friend suggested I should read it and it has done nothing to change my mind about the decision but I don’t really agree with Joanna Blythman that the situation in which we now find ourselves i.e. the decline of our high streets, the intensity of our farming, and the poor quality of our food, is the fault of the Supermarkets. We live in a Capitalist society. Money is God. Tesco, Wal-Mart and the rest are no different in their attitudes to buying from any other multinational company. The days of the philanthropic business leader are long gone. I know that Bill Gates does a fantastic amount of good in the world now that he has more money than he knows what to do with, but I wonder how many suppliers his buyers screwed on Bill’s way to the top.
As for the suppliers, as Whizz rightly says, if they have got themselves into a situation where they only supply one customer then more fool them. They were very naive to let it happen. Why don’t they all get together if things are so bad, get themselves an Association of Supermarket Suppliers (ASS) and refuse to deal if the terms are unfair. The supermarkets need them as much as they need the supermarkets so it’s time they got smart.
The only people who can really change things are we, the customers. We encouraged the supermarkets in the first place by voting with our purses. I remember wondering why manufacturers didn’t put nutritional values on everything, then they did and I was delighted – thanks to the supermarkets. I remember wishing I could post a letter and get cash out when I was buying my food, then I could – thanks to supermarkets. I, and you, are responsible for the change in the high street and only we can get it back. If we want to revive our small local businesses, if we want to put the taste back into our cooking, if we want to retain the nature of our countryside and reduce the use of chemicals in farming then we need to vote again. We must get back into the kitchen, cook, teach our kids to cook and to shop ethically. We are responsible for checking the provenance of our food and buying from our local veg distributor, small grocer or our butcher before he too goes the way of the greengrocer. We, who once wanted what we have, like petulant mistresses, must change our minds.