There are four supermarkets that feed most of the Queen of England’s subjects, which number 60 million or so. Their names? Tesco, Sainsbury, Morrisons and ASDA, which is partly owned by Wal-Mart. These four giants share more than half of the grocery shopping market in the United Kingdom. In 2003, it was worth $260 billion (CAN) – one of the most lucrative in Europe.

Food market share for major supermarkets in England, 2003 (Source: Institute for Grocery Distribution.)

These four supermarkets, along with 16 food producers and 180,000 farmers, dominate the food chain in England. But despite their numbers, farmers don’t carry any weight. Nothing better illustrates this reality than a sheep farmer who publicly complained of excess work she must do to tag both ears of each of her animals.

Last October, this reporter attended the regional conference on the future of red meat, which was organized by the Yorkshire Farmers Society in the north of England. The room was packed with about 100 representatives of feed and pharmaceutical companies, and officials from the Ministry of the Environment, Food and Rural Life, created in the wake of the mad cow crisis.

Only 20 farmers or so came to hear the predictions of about 10 experts. Among the conference attendees, Dr. Chris Brown, who is responsible for the development of farm products at Wal-Mart’s subsidiary ASDA, the second-most important supermarket chain in the United Kingdom, told the sheep farmer: “Our work rests with keeping the trust of the consumer, so we will never skimp on tracking.”

Since the mad cow crisis, the English have put more trust into their supermarkets when it comes to questions of animal tracking, nutrition and health than in their own government. It’s a constant refrain in consumer reasoning: “Neither the supermarket, nor the neighborhood restaurant, have any interest in poisoning me if they want me to come back the following week.”

Brown, of ASDA, directed his comment to the sheep farmer who complained about having to tag both her animals’ ears when as he said he signed an agreement with 4,500 sheep farmers who, in 2003, provided 1.5 million animals to ASDA. But it was necessary for seven employees to cut 425 tons of fat off the carcasses, which represented an additional cost of $300,000 that was passed along to consumers. “It would be necessary to review your (animals’) genetic profile,” he noted, politely suggesting that she breed Charollaise, Suffolk and Texel sheep together to get leaner meat.

Chain Reversal: A New Concept
According to agricultural economist Sean Rickard, the latest annual subsidies (around $7 billion Canadian), distributed by the European Union since the end of the Second World War to British sheep, beef and grain producers, have had the negative effect of “disconnecting” farmers from reality like a “dose of heroin.” As of the spring of 2005, these subsidies of around $35 Canadian per sheep and $400 Canadian per cow will gradually be phased out in favor of more environmentally friendly growing practices. The cut-off could be hard, as from this point on, farmers will have to find their revenues in the marketplace.

Iram Naz will not lose his job in the merger. After three months of training, his salary will be raised a bit, to $13 an hour.

Another negative effect of these subsidies is a lack of solidarity between farmers themselves: Each “wants his own chateau.” Rickard says that in the future, the farmers will have to regroup into something like cooperatives, in order to be able to negotiate with supermarkets because, individually, “they are cooked.”

The regrouping of farmers is one of three principal recommendations issued in the renowned Curry Commission report on the future of agriculture and sustainable development that was tabled in 2001 in the British Parliament. Ironically, the cooperative movement was born in England at the start of the last century, but with the exception of a handful of milk producers, the English countryside is littered with the cadavers of cooperatives because they were “badly run.”

Rickard sees a future where small groups of producers will insert themselves into the chains and recruit managers and marketing professionals. This is what happened with a small group of beef producers in Scotland, who brilliantly played the game. The roast beef from their cows can be found at the meat counter of Harrods, located in an upscale shopping district in the heart of London, and owned by the Egyptian multibillionaire Mohamed Al Fayed. A T-bone steak from these illustrious cows is priced at $133 Canadian … a kilo!

The logo battle
At all times, the majority of farmers do not, and will not have choices other than to negotiate with the four big supermarkets to distribute their products. Each week, the majority of the English conduct 85 per cent of their grocery shopping in the markets’ 1,000 stores. According to Tim Bennett, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), the equivalent of the UPA (Quebec Farmer’s Union), the future of English farmers will be found in agreements signed with companies such as Tesco, ASDA-Wal-Mart, Morrisons or Sainsbury, a little like athletes who wear the logos of Nike or adidas. “It’s right if the contract is viable. But if we become like slaves to multinationals, I don’t know if English farmers will continue to produce.”

The president of the National Farmers Union, Tim Bennett, holds the “little red tractor” logo that is stuck on packages of British products. It’s a strategy that is supposed to sensitize British consumers to buy goods produced in the United Kingdom.

No matter what the outcome, the supermarkets have absolutely no obligation to buy British products. They can provision themselves through the global village at less cost, in order to offer their clients an eternal summer. The slogan up in the windows of big grocery stores, Every Day Low Price, may attract consumers to the new garden of Adam and Eve, but for British farmers, it translates into Every Day Less Producers. So they desperately attempt to highlight their products against the 20,000 available in the aisles, counters and tables of supermarkets.

Launched in 2000 amid lots of pomp by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the “Little Red Tractor” logo stuck on thousands of British products is supposed to guarantee they meet national British Farm Standard. To place this logo on the packets of food, the NFU has produced a code of practice that includes environmental norms and animal health rules specifically targeted to participating farmers. In addition, the entire production chain, from the farm to the slaughterhouses is monitored by an independent inspection system. And an agreement to use the Little Red Tractor has been reached with the American farm machinery maker Massey Ferguson, which also uses it as its emblem.

The logo is placed on food products worth about $12 billion Canadian. But even if about 35 per cent of consumers recognize the logo, no more than 5 or 6 per cent understand its significance. “We don’t have the promotional budgets of Coca Cola!” notes a disenchanted Bennett.

British supermarkets aren’t limited to the conquest of the public’s stomachs, they also try to corner its psyche as well. How? By recruiting an army of psychologists who, supported by polling, track your every desire, and your emotions. GM cereals or not? Fair trade bananas, or not? Ready meals like Indian curry dishes, or those with Mexican jalapeño peppers? Every flavor in the world is brought to you, depending on the thickness of your wallet, your style and your convictions.

“To estimate your tastes and create an emotional link with house brand labels is part of a strategy that is shared with the leisure industry,” writes Tim Lang, an agricultural politics professor at University City, based in London (1). The supermarkets inject billions of dollars into promotional campaigns on TV, flood the radio waves and fill newspapers, all to put the spin on their products. Forty-five per cent of the products found in European markets are private label, as opposed to five per cent for North America. So this is the battleground between the titans to make consumers keep on coming back. “Even Goliaths like Unilever or Coca Cola dance to the supermarket’s tune,” says Lang.

In quest of ethics
This incredible power unbalance led to the creation in 2000 of a government inquiry commission into commercial practices between supermarkets and their providers. The commission produced an ethics code and, in 2001, a Bureau of Equitable Commerce was created, in which providers were asked to denounce abusive practices. In four years, not a single complaint has been lodged. Why?

Since 2002, the Coop network has been involved in many acquisitions of grocery stores. But it encountered problems by trying to compete with the four big supermarkets. (Source: Institute for Grocery Distribution.)

“Because in lodging a complaint, the producers are terrified of the idea of losing their business!” explains Helen Browning, a pork producer and former president of the Soil Association, an organization that certifies 70 per cent of the organic products sold in the United Kingdom. Browning sells her organic bacon under her own label with the help of the Sainsbury’s supermarket. “Without my own private label, I would not survive,” she says, adding that it’s more expensive to produce organic products.

Spurred on by food scares, the market for organic products saw a phenomenal growth of between 40 to 50 per cent at the end of the 1990s. In 2003 and in 2004, the organic market leveled to around $2.6 billion Canadian. Browning attributes this to a lack of money to promote the healthy effects of these foods to consumers.

Only one obstacle prevents the supermarkets from completely maximizing their revenue, and that is the direct sale to consumers by about 200 farmers’ markets through the United Kingdom. But, if these markets are extremely popular with a certain kind of clientele, this method of selling one’s homemade kidney pie still remains marginal. Lifestyle is paramount: The English devote no more than 1 ½ hours a week to buying groceries, with 90 per cent of scrambling for time while living and working in fast-paced cities. Moreover, they devote 50 per cent of their food budget to eating in restaurants.

Who will feed the English?
NFU president Tim Bennett recently has started a cow-calf operation because he couldn’t get qualified help for the dairy operation, which he had run for the past 27 years. The difficulty of recruiting qualified personnel to farms in the United Kingdom has led to one other socially explosive problem. Attracted by the healthy English economy, there could be 100,000 illegal workers, coming in from Eastern countries, and even as far away as Brazil and China, to work on the black market under the thumb of gangmasters (recruitment agencies), notably to harvest, cut and package carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and salads. These economic refugees live in conditions akin to the Middle Ages so that consumers can be offered freshly harvested produce at lower prices in certain supermarkets (2).

Helen Browning sells her organic pork with the help of the Sainsbury chain. According to her, consumers don’t pay the real price for their food in supermarkets because it doesn’t reflect the real environmental costs linked things such as transport and soil erosion.

As for Bennett’s two children, who’ve gone into professional careers other than agriculture, he says: “They were not interested in milking cows seven days a week. On the other hand, they’re interested in inheriting the farm. But I doubt that they’ll ever go into production.”

At 50 years old, Bennett is nearing the average age of British farmers – namely, 57. Because of this, there’s a gnawing question: Who will cultivate Her Majesty’s lands in the future? “I don’t benefit from any special government loan to establish myself,” recounts Stephen Keys, a young farmer in his mid-20’s who wants to take over the family farm, which specializes in horticulture and cattle in Northern Ireland.

According to the NFU, young farmers all over the British Isles face the same dilemma as they are lacking funds to get into business which explains the growing popularity among young farmers to produce under contracts for supermarkets. “If one negotiates a beneficial margin over the next two or three years, one can visit one’s banker,” explains Bennett.

Nevertheless, certain young people such as Robert Alderson, himself the son of an agricultural producer, calls on his co-citizens to boycott supermarkets altogether. During a meeting in the heart of London, Alderson distributed tracts that denounced the low price for milk paid to farmers, and he organized a demonstration to win over public opinion. Alderson is a militant for the organization, Farm, which counsels measures more radical than those of the NFU, and produced the little, shocking video, “Meatrix” (3), meant to alert citizens about “industrial agriculture.” The organization criticized the British government, among others, for not having established a real strategy to help farmers with funds from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Food safety … Sorry?
One week spent in the British capital allows to witness the unforgiving war being fought between the four food giants. On Queensway Road, near the entrance to the subway and a hotel, the tiny local market Europa liquidates its remaining canned goods, packets of bacon and cheddar cheese at reduced prices. “The big eat the small,” explains the manager, who finds himself the next day out on the pavement.

The son of an agricultural producer, Robert Alderson fights on behalf of the organization, FARM, right in the heart of London. He denounced the price of milk paid to dairy farmers and calls for a boycott of supermarkets. Among others, he reproaches the Blair government for having no strategy to establish some kind of relief. Will he be heard?

The little Europa chain has, in effect, been eaten by the British giant, Tesco, which soon after reopens the store under its own banner. Nearby, the supermarket giant turns another tiny place into a 24-hour convenience store. Along a noisy perpendicular street, Sainsbury also owns a store that is open day and night. This same phenomenon of concentration is occurring all over England, spreading like fire in cities as well as the countryside.

For Helen Browning, who sat as a commissioner on the famous Curry Commission, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government has avoided the issue of food safety, even as it has been debated elsewhere. “In this era of terrorism, the current chain of provisioning supermarkets can be interrupted one way or another,” she says, preoccupied, because her government has supported the war in Iraq.

Nevertheless, no need for crises such as a “September 11 of food,” a crisis like a giant ice storm, or a massive purchase of goods from China to short circuit supplies of new agro-food empires throughout the planet. In the village of Swindon, where Browning lives, there is only one mega supermarket, the small grocers having been crushed under the weight of the competition. “In one week, villagers could not get their groceries because of a simple employees’ strike,” she says.

The British population has known the pangs of hunger and food shortages in the last two World Wars. And it certainly counted on its own farmers to supply the thin rations that were in place at the time.

In seeing the off-hand manner in which the new generation of politicians treats all agricultural questions, Sir Winston Churchill must be turning himself over in his grave.

(1) Tim Lang and Michael Heasman. Food Wars: The Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets. Earthscan Publications Ltd., 2004.

(2) Felicity Lawrence. Not on the Label. Penguin Books, 2004, p. 29.

(3) Meatrix (


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