This piece, as part of the 2011 Blog Action Day on Food will examine how our food choices affect the rights of others. In particular it will look at how supermarkets are contributing to the denial of the rights of their producers and suppliers in the developing world, and what we can do about it.
Thirty-two million people in the UK buy their food in supermarkets each week. Over three-quarters of this bill goes into the pockets of the ‘big four’ supermarket retailers- Tescos, Asda (owned by Wal-Mart), Sainsbury’s and Morrisons. This makes them effectively the gatekeepers to the UK food market requiring any overseas producer who wants to access the market to go through them. Unfortunately these supermarkets have been abusing this power and have been driving producers into ever more desperate circumstances.
The so-called ‘prices wars’ between the top multinationals scrambling for market dominance has meant that they demand lower prices, faster delivery times and greater flexibility from suppliers. The supplier is burdened with the additional costs and risks and has little choice but to accept them rather than loose one of their largest, and often their main customer. Women, who make up the majority of the labour market in the food industry, are disproportionately affected by crumbling pay and conditions.
Action Aid gives some examples of the devastating impact of the food industry on local producers in the developing world. One example is that of Costa Rican plantation workers who have seen increased job insecurity, longer hours and less pay due to the scramble for rock-bottom banana prices in our supermarkets. The suppliers – most of whom rely on one supermarket chain for more than two-thirds of their business, slash the pay and working conditions of their workers to meet the unrealistic demand of more for less. Wages have dropped as low as 33p per hour and workers, mainly women, must work excessive hours to meet demand and earn enough to survive. Some continue to work while the fields are being sprayed with harmful pesticides because they need the extra pay. Many have been moved from permanent to casual contracts to allow the employer to avoid contractual obligations such as holiday pay and sick leave.
- delaying payments to suppliers;
- reducing the agreed price of an order after it’s been delivered;
- requiring payments from suppliers when supermarket profits are not as big as expected;
- requiring suppliers to contribute to the cost of opening a new store;
- changing orders at the last minute
The lack of current government regulation means that these practices of supermarkets are allowed to continue. The Ethical Trading Initiative, widely seen as the best of the voluntary codes of practice for the food industry, has not lead to the improvements needed to protect producers from exploitation and rights violation. Mainly because it is a voluntary code and does not have any legislative teeth.
For years many campaigning organisations have called for a supermarket watchdog which would protect the rights of suppliers and their workers. This call was echoed in the final report by the Sustainable Development Commission. The Competition Commission agreed and recommended to government the establishment of an Ombudsman to enforce the Groceries Supply Code of Practice. The government has produced a draft bill on a Groceries Code Adjudicator but since the election there has been very little movement and recent government announcements have indicated that this watchdog will not be set up until 2014.
Mitigating the effects of global trade
The concept of fair trade has been around for decades and developed into a formal labelling scheme in the late 1980s. According to the Fairtrade Foundation which assesses and awards the label, fairtrade ‘is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world’. Over the past decade the movement has grown out of the niche market and into the mainstream. It ‘addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers’. This provides the consumer with an ethical choice when purchasing crops unsuited to our climate – such as bananas, coffee and cocoa. It works within the global food system hoping to make it fairer.
However, as one billion people go hungry each day while the same number is overweight, it is clear that the global food system itself needs to change. Over the past 30 years or more multinationals have grown exponentially in power, aided by IMF market liberalisation policies and ‘free trade’ agreements forcing developing countries to open their markets. But when the market gates were opened in flooded cheap produce from countries such as the US where farmers are heavily subsidised and their practices highly mechanised to enable undercutting of local produce. This has lead to the erosion of the agricultural backbone of these countries and many now rely on aid.
However many international campaigning groups, local grassroots organisations and farmers themselves, are deciding to opt out of this destructive system and regain control of their own food production – to regain Food Sovereignty. War on Want defines Food Sovereignty as ‘the right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods’. It ‘enables farmers and communities to become self-sufficient, protecting them from poverty and hunger. The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil provides an excellent example of this working in practice. MST works with 12,000 landless people in Brazil who have regained their land and are now self-sufficient in food. Millions of others across the world are attempting the same thing. Via La Campesina is the international movement which brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world to defend small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity. It strongly opposes corporate driven agriculture and transnational companies. The premise behind this movement is to give people the opportunity to meet their own needs and satisfying their own right to food.
So what will we do if farmers across the world are keeping their crops to eat? We could also grow our own. Farming in the UK and Ireland has declined substantially in the last decade as we rely more on imported foods. The Sustainable Development Commission lays out a comprehensive strategy for making the UK more sustainable – including government incentives, education and cooperation. Many organisations are available for advice on growing your own food (Grow It Yourself Ireland, Groundwork NI to name a few) and community gardens are becoming more popular for space-squeezed city dwellers. We could also abandon the desire to eat every type of food all year round and instead eat what’s in season.
There are many initiatives and ideas about how we can live more sustainably, many of which are being shared today.