Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why we should NOT buy food from supermarkets

"On the face of it, Britain's food market works firmly against the interests of the farmer.
For more than 90% of the population, a supermarket is the main or sole place of shopping; supermarkets now corner the market not just in microwave curries and sun-dried tomatoes, but in basic commodities such as cheese and eggs.
This gives them tremendous bargaining power, says Stuart Thomson of English Farming and Food Partnerships, a quasi-government body which aims to make British agriculture more competitive.
"There's a massive chain between the producer and the consumer," he says.
"The farmer is the weakest link."
By focusing heavily on price, supermarkets have helped shunt aside many local producers: British farming output has actually fallen over the past decade, despite a near-50% increase in overall food consumption.

"Nor are supermarkets always sensitive in the way they wield this power, farmers say.

"I have never had to deal with such a penny-pinching bunch of bastards in all my life," says one Dorset farmer who does not want to be named.
"They see farmers as victims, not business partners."
Hyperbole aside, farmers have rational grounds for beefing.
The supply chains they sell into are troublingly opaque: for every pound's-worth of food sold retail, farmers earn on average 34 pence - a share that has dropped by 28% since the late 1980s - and accounting for the remaining 66 pence is far from easy."

And the situation is exactly the same in Lebanon. When we still thought that selling organic food to supermarket was going to improve the livelihood of the small producers, we engaged into a broad marketing campaign with a number of large outlets. We eventually settled on Monoprix which has, in France, a policy of support for sustainable development (no doubt to attract customers in need of a conscience white wash). The experience was terrible. I used to take the produce myself sometimes, and I can vouch that farmers (me included) were treated like dirt. The guy in charge of purchasing would make us wait for hours outside, in the rain or in the sun, until he finished his lunch and all his burps. He would then come out and say "today I'm only buying so much". There would be more merchandise than he needed, and he would use that to drive the prices to the ground. He would also look at the produce, declare it spoiled or rotten, and give his price, often well below market price. The farmers who had come a long way, and who did not want to lose the business, would sell for the cheapest prices. Note that the supermarket sale prices are also very low, because the sale of cheap fresh produce is an attractant for families to come and buy other food stuff, ususally imported manufactured food where the profit margin is way higher. Supermarkets deal differently with large providers, usually middle men themselves. They agree on prices, but every now and then they impose "promotion" prices on them. They ask them to sell their produce way below market prices so that they themselves can offer it as a promotion item and advertise it widely. This also attracts customers. They also ask them (as they did for our organic produce) to pay an initiation fee so that they display our produce.

Needless to say, we stopped selling through supermarkets very quickly. Today we have a small shop and a stall in the farmer market and 100 subscribers to a CSA program and farmers are doing much better.

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