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Is Shopping At Tesco Killing the UK Countryside?

In February while in England, I wrote about the British media's love affair with Tesco and it's managing director Sir (or is that Saint) Terry Leahy. At the time I was about to embark on a three-week roadshow of seminars for farm shops and farmers markets where I expected to hear a different viewpoint.

I did, but to their credit this was coupled with a passion for educating the public to the benefits of farm fresh, local produce for their health, taste buds and the local economy.

To get a more comprehensive understanding of this, I purchased "Shopped - The Shocking Power of Supermarkets", a newly released book by award winning UK food writer, Joanna Blythman.

This controversial 382 book paints a different picture to the one that I had seen and read in the British media. For example, Blythman reports that at Tesco's June 2003 AGM at a London hotel -

"Real farmers held up placards bearing questions that Tesco might prefer its shareholders not to think about. 'Tesco profits - farmers squeezed.' 'Who's creaming it? Farmer paid 9p a pint. Shopper pays...?' 'Who snatched the biggest slice? Farmers get 7p a loaf. Shopper pays...?' Perhaps the most poignant was the placard that read: 'Cheap food? 11 farmers go bust every day...1 commits suicide every week."

When the subject of board members £1 million plus pay packets came up at the AGM "...a Lincolnshire arable farmer in the audience, Peter Lungdren, pointed out that the average farm income had dropped to £11,000 a year and that 30 per cent of farming families were living on family credit. He congratulated Tesco on their impressive profits but said that these were being achieved through environmental degradation and rural degradation caused by supermarkets not paying a fair price to the people who grow the nation's food."

Blythman points out that few farmers dare to be as candid as Lungdren. "A permanent threat of delisting (the supermarket ceasing to stock their product) hangs over them...In the past decade supermarkets have established a near feudal relationship with their suppliers, tightening their control over them, effectively dictating what they produce and screwing down prices, yet offering no security in return. A Surrey grower, Charles Secrett, gave me a graphic example of the gnawing insecurity suppliers feel. 'One winter, it was so frosty we couldn't get the leeks out the ground. But we knew if we didn't get them to the retailer, it would be a black mark against us and probably affect the growing programme they gave us next season. So we literally went out and chiselled the leeks out of the soil rather than tell them we had a problem."

Destroying town centres "Mention the word 'parking' to independent retailers and be prepared to stand and listen for some time. They feel a huge sense of injustice at the large supermarket chains' free-parking advantage over town-based shops. They see themselves as victims of pseudo-environmental town planning, selectively applied. Consumers can drive to out-of-town super-stores and park for free. But if they would prefer to spread a significant amount of the household shopping around local shops, either they will need strong arms to transport heavy shopping by foot - in 2000 the average family food shopping weighed around 36 kilos - or they will have to cruise round patiently in their cars to find one of a diminishing number of parking spaces."

Blythman quotes a recent government report which states that the large amount of free parking offered by out of town supermarkets gives them an enormous competitive advantage over city-centre stores. In addition, supermarkets at these sites generate more car use, making the situation on already congested roads worse. Meanwhile..."local shops and their potential customers dodge vigilant traffic wardens keenly enforcing their council's green sounding, leave your car at home policy."

Customer power It seems though that customers are voting with their car keys. The large out of town supermarkets are giving customers the quality and variety they demand and they are going back for more. Or are they being conned into buying whatever is easiest and most cost effective for the big box retailers to source and display?

According to Blythman, what supermarkets excel at is "over-packaged, over-processed, much travelled ingredients that put two fingers up to the seasons and any notion of locality or geographical specificity."

She says that, "much supermarket produce never tastes of anything much because it has been harvested prematurely to stop it deteriorating during transportation and on the shelf...fresh produce simply doesn't travel well. No surprises then that consumers are encouraged by supermarkets to shop with their eyes only, all other senses suspended"

"Growers come up with produce that keeps the supermarket quality controller happy; the consumer is not the primary concern. Consequently most growing decisions - variety, method of cultivation, time of harvesting - are taken so as to ensure produce that meets cosmetic standards."

Charles Secrett confirms this -

"Before the (big box) supermarket arrived, we were self-sufficient in vegetables in the UK. The supermarkets have destroyed British horticulture. The chink of light for growers who have hung on over the last five years, we've noticed that more shoppers are fed up with clinical supermarket produce that looks good but tastes dreadful when you take it out of its crinkly polypropylene film. They are looking for produce like they used to be able to buy. A sector of the public is clamouring for the real article. You only have to eat English asparagus and compare it with the imported equivalent to realise what a difference there is."

I must confess that I enjoy the shopping experience at Tesco and the other top UK supermarket operators. I also love the fresh, seasonal produce at the growing number of professionally run farm shops and farmers markets. It is interesting to note that this sector - direct sales from farm to consumer - is thriving, while few others are in the UK. And there is nothing to beat locally grown, freshly picked produce in season. It's something most of us want for our children as well as for our taste buds and our health and vitality.

I'm sure this great British debate will continue so if it interests you, I'd definitely recommend you invest in a copy of "Shopped - The Shocking Power of Supermarkets". If you live in the UK you should have no trouble getting it through good book stores. From other parts of the world it may be more difficult, so we have included a link at the Resources section of our website www.terrifictrading.com.

About the author:

Jurek Leon is a speaker, trainer and consultant. To subscribe to Jurek's FREE monthly email newsletter go to the Free Articles section of his website www.terrifictrading.com

Written by: Jurek Leon

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