In been to the detriment of farmers, since the

In the years that followed
the Second World War, between 1945 and 1965, there was a major shift in the way
people sourced food supplies, mainly due to the emergence of self-service style
shops, which offered a wide variety of products, as opposed to traditional,
specialised shops. This phenomenon revolutionized the industry and meant that
people all across Britain no longer had to walk from shop to shop for their
daily groceries, with supermarkets eventually taking over and creating a new
consumer culture (Environment and Planning A, 2005). We have since witnessed
the rapid spread of large supermarket chains nationwide, which now dominate the
market. Apart from altering the way people shop, large retailers have also had
a far-reaching effect on British farming and the environment.

When large retailers began
taking over the British grocery market at the beginning of the 1980s, they were
offering a “precision shopping model” which would seemingly result in a more
efficient, convenient and cost-effective way of sourcing food. Presently, large
food retailers such as Waitrose, Tesco, Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Asda,
ALDI and Lidl hold over 80% of the market (Renton, 2011). A large market share
allows economies of scale because of supermarkets’ collective buying power and
high-tech distribution logistics that would bring every agricultural product to
our shops all year round (Blythman, 2016). These economies of scale have
unfortunately been to the detriment of farmers, since the demands made on them
have become increasingly restraining in recent years, with farmers being locked
into unfavourable agreements with supermarkets, adding to their costs. In order
to ensure accountability to their stakeholders, supermarkets are obtaining more
advantageous deals in order to economise, by forcing producers to lower their
prices to pitiful amounts or by forcing them to provide production services
such as packaging or by imposing fees. To further produce economic growth, the
rate of yield per square meter was maximised in both crop and livestock
farming, resulting in a “spiral of supermarket growth” (Fox and Vorley, 2004).

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To add to this, farmers have to follow strict instructions as to the size and
weight of their products and often, buyers pay only for the produce that has
met their pre-determined specifications, even though the produce that has not
is still taken to be used in packets of chopped vegetables. In addition,
farmers have little or no say in the pricing of the products they are selling
and on many occasions they can’t make ends meet (Blythman, 2007).

This almost feudal
relationship between buyer and supplier has been more detrimental for the small
grower, especially since supermarkets favour large growers over the smaller
ones due to their stronger legal representation. The constant need for the
different supermarket brands to offer added value and the best price to their
customers has created a climate of fear among the small producers. They are
caught in the so called “price wars” between the large food retailers with more
than 50% of farmers struggling to survive in the industry. Commercial growers
are becoming increasingly dominant turning billions in profit as the can meet
the yield per square metre margins easier, in contrast to small suppliers who
barely make £25,000 per annum (Kollewe, 2015). Having said that, small growers
are also to blame since no united front has ever been presented against this
issue. This, in conjunction with the fact that large food retailers have taken
over the wholesale businesses, has added a great stress on farmers, who have
been left with little or no choice (Blythman, 2007).

With small farmers marginalised
and with the rise of US style mega-farms, the face of British agriculture, and
especially livestock farming, has changed drastically. Farms have evolved from
small acres of land in the countryside to vast expanses with row upon row of
crops and animal housing. Livestock corporations are finding ways to keep as
many animals as possible in tight spaces in order to maximise profitability.

Paradoxically, free-range chickens have the living space of an A4 sized sheet
of paper from the day they hatch until they are ready for the buyer (Wasley and
Davies, 2017). Not having sufficient space to grow naturally, animals are
unable to display natural behaviours which is very important for animal welfare
(Hemsworth and Coleman, 2011). Female animals are used as factories to breed
intensively and this, together with the close proximity of the animals and
unsanitary living conditions, makes them prone to infection. In order to
counteract these effects, corporations administer unnecessary antibiotics to
livestock. The antibiotics are then carried on to humans through consumption,
having adverse effects on our health. The large presence of antibiotics in
living organisms including humans, has caused the rise of antibiotic resistant
diseases and it is estimated that the number of deaths due to incurable
diseases will reach 10 million annually by 2050 (Gallagher, 2015).

 

In addition to
effects on farming, the environmental impact of the consumer era that
supermarkets have given rise to is significant. A change in government policy
which doubled the yield of wheat and milk in 1970, caused a dramatic shift in
farming practices (Attenborough, 2016). The vast majority (97%) of wildflower
meadows have disappeared across Britain, along with hedgerows, ponds and bogs
to give way to farming corporations (Barkham, 2015). The consequential loss of habitat
for many wild animals has seen to the decline in many species including
hedgehogs and corn marigolds. Furthermore, the increased use of pesticides,
herbicides and fertilisers which are used to promote plant growth out of season
has contributed to the decrease of bug species which are a food source for many
animals. Due to this change in the countryside landscape, more than half the
species are currently in decline and one in seven are in danger of extinction
(Attenborough, 2016).

 

Another important
effect of the constant use of chemicals on land is that it has led to marine
dead zones. Dead zones occur when an excess of nitrogen and phosphorus is
transferred through natural aquifers to the sea, causing a large bloom of
algae. This unnatural bloom in turn uses up most of the diluted oxygen in that
particular area, not allowing other marine organisms such as fish to thrive.

This also endangers marine mammals as they solely depend on fish for survival.

Zones like this can be found all along the British coastline (Rutledge et al.,
2011).

 

Indirectly,
supermarkets are a major cause of plastic pollution, especially at open sea. Plastic
from single use packaging, straws and wrapping are thrown away at an increasing
rate by consumers, with the vast majority of it not being recycled. Plastic is
then carried to sea by the wind, drainage systems or rivers that lead to the
sea. A staggering 12 million tons end up in the ocean every year with 80% of
that originating on land (Casson, 2017). These figures seem to keep rising at
an alarming rate since there has been a 222% increase in plastic pollution
since the early nineties in Britain (Barkham, 2017). The presence of plastic in
the oceans is extremely harmful to all marine animals, birds and humans due to
its durable nature and chemical composition. Fish, sea turtles, sea birds and
marine mammals are either tangled up in plastic debris being severely or
lethally injured or they ingest small plastic pieces which can cause intestinal
injury and eventually death. As plastic slowly degrades, it releases highly
toxic chemicals such as PCBs, BPA, PAH and DDT which are carried down the food
chain to us and other animals causing cancers and endocrine mutations
(biologicaldiversity.org, n.d.). Former Asda CEO, Andy Clarke, stated that it
would take the common effort of all large food retailers and packaging
companies to tackle the problem.

 

All in all, the rise
in supermarkets has completely shaped Britain, not only by establishing a new
normal as to how we source food but also as to what we, as consumers expect to
see on their shelves. The “convenience” of large retailers has allowed the need
to produce more food than ever within a smaller time frame, thrusting farming
into a modern, industrialised era which is now more efficient than ever.

Unfortunately, this industrialization of farming practices has come at a high
cost to our planet, affecting the British landscape and our health, as well as
delicate eco-systems, which have been in harmonious balance for millions of
years. It would take the mutual effort of all large retailers to put things
right.