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Supermarkets offer cheap products, save us time, and let us participate in a globalised market for food. It’s just our own farmers, our environment, and our health that have been paying the price, Eurof Uppington writes.
By now, everyone in Europe is likely aware that farmers across the continent have embarked on the largest protests of this year, heavy machinery and all.
Their demands are so varied — ranging from higher prices to less red tape to fewer environmental regulations to tax relief — that they seem impossible to meet.
And while farmers are somehow “always” protesting some perceived slight, driving their tractors onto highways or into Europe’s capitals and dumping manure on bureaucrats’ doorsteps, something feels different.
The current discontent seems deeper, and more widespread than before.
The new factor is governments’ need to reduce farm emissions as part of Green New Deal policies: big changes have come to subsidy rules, aimed at boosting soil health and biodiversity via animal destocking and lower fertiliser, pesticide, and herbicide use.
These are all excellent goals that farmers, as stewards of their land, would normally support, in principle.
But with most farms constantly hovering at the edge of bankruptcy, being forced to jump through new bureaucratic hoops to reapply for the subsidies they depend on is incredibly stressful.
Plus, if you think you need X amount of fertiliser to get the same yield and without it you’ll go bust, and you get told to cut it; you’d freak out too.
Adapting to these new rules would be vastly easier if farming were a profitable business.
The fact it isn’t is because of where and how we buy our food: supermarkets are the gatekeepers to a food system stacked against people who grow what we eat.
Local farmers’ goods have no advertising budget
In business, power comes from market concentration. Our food industry is like an hourglass, with millions of consumers downstream and thousands of producers upstream, but in the middle of each national market sit just a handful of dominant supermarket brands coupled with a similar number of processed food brand owners, like Nestlé, Kraft, and Pepsico.
Those supermarkets and processors use their market power to boost margins at the expense of their suppliers — the farmers — and their consumers — us.
Supermarkets can even boss the big food brands around. They like to sell products with long shelf lives and high margins, from vendors who do marketing for them.
So Nestlé pays millions to advertise Nesquick chocolate milk, for example, on TV, driving demand for that brand, and then pays Tesco actual cash to get it on shelves at eye level, above the other chocolate milk.
Local farmers’ milk, beef, or tomatoes have no advertising budget. They’re non-branded commodities supermarkets might have to throw away if they can’t sell: they see no reason to pay up, and every reason to drive down prices for these categories as much as possible.
Cheap prices and convenience make us complicit, too
How supermarkets sell food affects what we eat. Walking through the aisles the eye-level products tend to be heavily processed, wrapped in bright packaging with cartoon tigers and rabbits on them.
These are the long-life foods made by supermarkets’ brand partners. Healthy, whole foods don’t get a look in. During the years of supermarket dominance in Europe and the US, hyper-processed food consumption has increased, making us sicker.
How supermarkets sell also affects how farmers grow. Unable to differentiate their products, and under extreme price pressure, farmers have been forced to grow for volume rather than taste or nutrition.
Focused on yield for the past half a century or so, modern farming has ravaged Europe’s countryside and waters by nutrient runoff, destruction of habitat, and biodiversity loss from chemical-heavy agriculture.
Let’s not blame Carrefour and Coop for all the planet’s ills, though. We’re complicit too, bribed by cheap prices, and above all, the convenience of having everything we need for our weekly shop in one place.
Supermarkets save us time. Thanks to them we also spend less of our income on food than ever before, although post-covid food inflation bumped that up a bit.
Supermarkets let us participate in a globalised market for food, where we can get strawberries from Peru in winter, and cheap calories from Brazilian soy all year round. It’s just our own farmers, our environment, and our health that have been paying the price.
So what to do?
Farmers should not be picking up the tab
Firstly, making farmers pay for the green transition is clearly unfair and unworkable. Governments and consumers should support them as much as we can.
Many supermarkets understand the issues too, and are making efforts to source locally and highlight farmers who supply them in their marketing.
But this is voluntary; we need new business models to succeed that localise and de-commoditise food, like Ooby in the UK which sets up local hubs delivering veg boxes from small farmers. My own startup matches restaurants in Switzerland to artisanal olive oil producers in Greece, Spain and Portugal.
But it’s hard. To succeed, these models have to find something to overcome supermarkets’ price and convenience advantage.
Consumer education can help on the margin, but it takes time. Grocery delivery is super convenient but adds cost. Until some new technology comes along to change the paradigm, we’re stuck with supermarkets.
This is why we’re also stuck with policy as the only tool to change things, for now.
The more support farmers can extract from politicians, the better, but the response can’t be to bounce from short-term solution to short-term solution.
Proper systems thinking is needed to square the circle of solving the needs of farmers and the urgent imperative to restore our environment. They shouldn’t be opposites.
Eurof Uppington is the CEO and Founder of Amfora, a Switzerland-based importer of extra virgin olive oils.
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