Monday 28 October 2013

The Supermarkets’ grip on food security.

Talib Murad

In 2012 the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (F.A.O.) estimated that during 2010 – 2012 nearly 870 million people of the 7.1 billion people in the world, or one in eight individuals, were suffering from chronic undernourishment. Almost all of these, 852 million, were living in developing countries and formed 15 percent of the population of those countries while the remaining 16 million undernourished people were in developed countries (FAO 2012).
These figures are a cause for concern throughout the world putting even more pressure on agriculturists to produce sufficient food to feed growing populations. The fact that people are malnourished in developing countries raises concerns that the food was too expensive for these people and indeed charities in a rich country like the UK are increasingly providing food banks to assist families that cannot afford sufficient food.  This week the national paper, the Daily Telegraph (22.10.2013 edition) contained an article on supermarkets in which it says “Even after the deepest recession for a century, our affluent society has failed to shake off its most profligate habits. The latest food waste figures, published by Britain’s biggest supermarket TESCO manage to take one’s breath away. Of all the bagged salad produced in this country, 68% are never consumed”.
 The amount of food wasted in Britain was calculated (see  hereunder) and Britain is not one of top 20 of the world’s largest countries by population in the world.  One wonders what will be the figures for wasted food in Europe, USA, China and the petrodollar rich countries, and it is anybody’s guess. As increasing concern over the world’s food security deficit gains international momentum the figures for the amount of food wasted worldwide will be an international issue.
I have witnessed the demise of corner shops and small greengrocers over the last four decades in the UK while traditional farmers’ markets became a thing of the past as stalls were taken over by sellers of cheap imported goods. It took the west nearly half a century to reach this situation but in Kurdistan we have attained it in less than a decade. There are some in Kurdistan who, will no doubt, argue that there is no difference if we get our food from a corner shop, greengrocer, super or hypermarket because most of our food is imported and comes mainly from Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf. Sadly that is true, yet all the time our country’s agriculture and food security deteriorates as we become entrenched as a nation of consumers dazzled with our new oil dependant wealth.
The production and sale of fresh foods, namely vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy products should be restricted to farm co-operatives, green grocers and local farmers’ markets. We are happy for the supply of water, gas, electricity, telephone systems etc. to be left to those that have the technical knowledge and expertise to provide a good service, but our food supply chains, and our food security, should not be controlled by international conglomerates that can generate annual profits that exceed the annual GDP of many countries! The sole purpose of these companies is to make substantial profits for their shareholders (in foreign countries) at the expense of both the food producers and the consumers.
We must make a concerted effort to support the greengrocers, local corner shops, small outlets and farmers’ markets. They can provide cheap, local products and are not averse to selling items in quantities that are far smaller than the supermarket will provide and so meet the needs of small or large families. The local trade encourages local farmers and small holders to maintain and increase production from the land as they know that there is a thriving local market for their produce.
In the UK concern is growing over the activities of the large supermarket chains. Farmers complain of the vegetables they have grown at the request of a company to discover that they will not be paid for a large percentage, if not all, of their crop and they are forced to plough perfectly edible ‘ugly’ vegetables back into their fields, as they do not meet the perfect shape deemed necessary for sale, and there is no longer a local market left to sell it to. Last year the UK had the wettest summer on record and supermarkets were pressurized into buying and selling the ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables they would otherwise have left to rot and instead put them for sale. The not surprising result was that the produce was bought by the shoppers who preferred to buy local food and support the country’s farmers.
In the last few years many farmers in Kurdistan embarked on purchasing polytunnels that allowed an increase in the season over which certain crops such as salad vegetables could be produced. This is now a standard system in use throughout the world and is utilized by farmers, small holders and keen gardeners, and the result is cheap, locally produced food. The Kurdish farmers who used polytunnels produced crops that sold for less than a quarter of the selling price of the imported food on sale in the supermarkets yet the market did not respond to the availability of the local produce!
 We have become like horses wearing blinkers and do not see what is going on around us. We look only at the produce in the supermarket that is presented to us clean and packaged and we do not see the hidden costs that are the demise of our country’s agriculture and our increasing dependence on foreign nations for our food, and therefore our existence. Every other nation in the world is increasingly recognizing that food security is no less important than national security so why on earth are we happy to leave our food security to in the greedy hands of others?



7.2 million tonnes       The amount of food wasted in UK homes each year.

£2.5 billion                  The value of the food thrown away by households every year.

19 percent                  The overall proportion of food bought by households and then is wasted.

68 percent                  The proportion of bagged salads that are wasted every year, including salads that never leave the farm, or are damaged during the packing stage, or are thrown away by retailers and householders.

One in four                 The number of apples in fruit bowls that are not eaten but thrown away.

300,000 tonnes           The amount of ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables sold in supermarkets last autumn after rules were relaxed about the standards for fresh produce.

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