Tag Archives: supermarkets

Rise in organic food sales

An article in The Guardian says that “Organic food and drink sales rise to record levels in the UK”. That is good news but there is still scepticism about the value of organic food. Some say it is too expensive others argue that it is a con. The thing that finally convinced me it was the only food i wanted to eat was finding the information about pesticide residues in food. That was in the early 1990s when the government stipulated a ‘safe’ minimum amount of residue for each common pesticide and fungicide. For many years two government scientists, McCance and Widdowson, produced a report of the amounts of each pesticide found in fruit and veg that they bought from supermarkets. There were items that exceeded the allowed maximum and this was included in a yearly report.

What was not recognised was that most crops received multiple applications of different products. There might be applications of fungicide, then pesticides for insect infestation followed by weed killers. There was never any limit for cocktails of chemicals.

Then in a drought year we heard about high levels of chemicals in carrots and the government  told us to wash them. The problem is that modern pesticides are systemic. That means they are taken up into the cells of the plant and cannot be removed, even by fancy veg washing products. And peeling does not help as the chemicals are in every cell.

Those of you of a certain age will remember crops of corn slowly turning a golden colour in late summer and then the harvest that followed when the weather was right. Now, cereal crops and potatoes are ‘sprayed off’ so that harvest can happen at set times. On corn they use weed killer and acid on potatoes to kill the tops.

Modern farms are part of the supermarket supply chain and if they are contracted to supply 100 tonnes of potatoes in the first week of September that is what they must do or lose the contract. It is supermarkets who control agriculture as it must be part of a production line to ensure continuous supply. There is no such thing as seasonal fruit and vegetables, we want everything all the time and we it now!

There have been arguments about organic produce being more nutritious. An idea fiercely contested by conventional farming. A study by Newcastle University found that organic milk was higher in nutrients. Such research is not so common now as universities rely on external funding.

Other groups round the world looked at simple indicators of quality in veg like the Brix reading. Although this is a simple test that anybody can do it does provide an overall indication of quality. I have a brix refractometer bought several years ago when experimenting with different growing techniques and did a random test on carrots last week. Comparing a standard carrot from Waitrose with one in our box from Riverford Organics. The results are clear

Supplier BRIX
Waitrose 6.4
Riverford 10.2

It is not all about pesticides as non-organic, or factory farming, methods also have an effect on soil, our greatest natural asset. Since the 1940s the emphasis has been on increasing production through the widespread use of chemical fertilisers. While the use of N-P-K (Nitrogen Phosphorous Potassium or Potash) does give rapid growth, it produces plants that do not have the strength to withstand insect attacks. Previously farms mixed and crops on land manured by the animals. That was a natural cycle and produced rich healthy soil.

A somewhat ironic side effect of not applying organic matters to soil such as compost or manure is that it results in thin soils which are easily eroded. Farmers use high cost inputs to get bigger, quicker crops and lose their soil in the process.

There is growing evidence that the strongest, healthiest and most nutritious crops are grown on good quality soils that provide the whole spectrum of minerals and nutrients. That is not surprising! The fact that the nutritional value of food has declined since the 1940s is overlooked see this report from 2002  And this one from McCance and Widdowson

This is why I decided to buy organic food nearly 30 years ago. Some will argue it is an expensive luxury but now the price of organic veg is the same or only slightly more than the other stuff. In the end it is your choice but remember one thing, your body is you, if you look after it and feed it well you will feel the benefits. Like I said to a man one day if you bought a top of the range luxury car would you put paraffin (kerosene) in the tank to save money. He told me not to be so stupid, so, I asked him why did he put the cheapest possible food down his throat. My only conclusion was that he valued his new car more than he valued himself.

The answer? Grow you own and if not have it delievered to your door.  We use Riverford as we no longer able to grow much of our own food.

Food shortages?

Yesterday the Daily Express ran a headline saying that supplies of food and fuel were running out due to the bad weather. Well they are now as that sort of scaremongering will provoke people into panic buying.

What the situation does prove is that the food supplies in this country rely of vast number of lorries delivering to supermarkets every few hours. If the roads are impassable then supplies dry up in a matter of days.

Over the last few years there has been report after report warning that food supplies in the UK are perilous. Reliance on just a few very large companies to provide our food has inevitable consequences when things go wrong but successive governments have done nothing to improve food security.

So, we get what we deserve; a food supply system that is driven by price and perceived ‘convenience’. The fact that supermarkets often charge more for fresh produce than local markets is ignored in favour of the lure of myriad ‘bargains’ and special offers.

There are ways to reduce reliance on a few multinational companies to provide our food; it just needs a little bit of effort to become more independent and far more resilient.

Why organic? A personal response

Over the 20 years or so that I have been an organic grower I have been asked why organic; what is so special about organic gardening. There is not an easy one sentence answer but I will try to explain.

The first answer is that I took a decision about what I wanted to eat and that ruled out food with pesticide residues. Although the government assure us it is perfectly safe to eat food grown with pesticides there is growing evidence that the daily ingestion of small amounts of chemical poisons has an effect. A study at the University of Rochester showed that a combination of two common pesticides caused effects like Parkinson’s disease when fed to lab mice at residue levels.  There is other research but it is always challenged by the agrochemical companies and often suppressed by governments but it can be found.

Is organic food better for you? My answer is definitely! The University of Newcastle proved that organic milk contained higher levels of essential nutrients. There have been other reports saying the same but the UK government still says there is no difference.

In terms of sustainability organic has to be the only way to grow food. Conventional growing relies on big inputs of chemically produced fertilizer and pesticides. That means using oil and gas to produce the artificial aids, or props, that underpin modern agriculture. Even the experts are saying we are running out of oil so we need to find other ways to grow food. Add to that the huge amounts of CO2 produced by using fossil fuels and it is obvious that we cannot continue as we are.

The other big issue is food security. We have become used to a lifestyle that includes being able to buy any food at any time of the year. That means that we not only import food from around the world, often by air, but that we depend on an infrastructure of mass storage and delivery. There is increasing awareness about food miles and the costly supermarket distribution systems but there is no wringing of hands and no alternative suggested apart from the UK eat local idea which does not address the other issues of chemically produced food. And even local food can travel a long distance before it reaches the supermarket shelves.

The current system has become so accepted and so powerful that it has erased memories of how things used to be. Within a generation we have stopped eating seasonal produce and become hooked on the goodies in the over lit enticing atmosphere of the local superstore. We CAN produce a lot more food in the UK but it means small changes to our lifestyles.

So, that is why I choose to grow organic food and why I like buy it in preference to the other stuff. It is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ but just common sense. I would also argue that anybody remotely interested in sustainability should be doing the same. I would argue that it is no use using low energy light bulbs but at the same time supporting a food system that is wasteful and unsustainable.

Hidden food miles

A TV programme about Eddie Stobart, a well known UK haulage company, shown last week revealed some startling facts.

Last week an Eddie Stobart driver was dispatched from their London depot to Ashby de la Zouch to pick up a load of biscuits for transport to Morrison’s distribution centre in Northwich. At a rough estimate that is 90 miles from the lorry depot to the manufacturer, 95 miles from the manufacturer to the distribution centre and if the lorry returned to London another 184 miles making a total of 369 miles. If the lorry went to the Stobart depot in Warrington to pick up another road the total would be reduced to 201 miles.

My guess is that the food miles for that load would be counted as the distance from the manufacturer to the distribution depot i.e. 95 miles. In reality it is a least double that and maybe much more. But this is not the end of the story. The biscuits would then be sent out to Morrison’s branches which could quite easily be located within a few miles of where they started their journey.

In the particular case shown on the TV programme the load was rejected by Morrison’s because it was outside the allocated 30 minute delivery time slot. That meant that the load had to be taken to the nearest Stobart depot for delivery the following night.

What this brings home is that supermarkets completely dominate how and when food is delivered in the UK. More importantly they totally rely on road transport which has obvious implications for food security. Lastly, we need real life figures for food miles to highlight the huge distances food travels within the UK .

I am sure Morrisons are not unique in the way they run their business and that all of their competition is just the same. Also, Eddie Stobart is not the only haulage company serving the food industry. We need to understand the implications of using supermarkets. They might be convenient, they might appear to be cheaper but there is a massive hidden environmental cost which one day we will have to pay.

Jimmy’s supermarket secrets

There was another episode of “Jimmy’s supermarket secrets” on TV last night It was an hour long programme called “crop to shop” and involved Jimmy darting around looking at how we manage to import fresh food from half way round the world.

I can’t decide what irritates me most about this guy, whether it is his sense of naïve wonder or just his uncritical childlike enthusiasm. Both of those were very evident last night especially as he travelled across the Egyptian dessert wondering how crops could be grown in such a dry and barren place.

Jimmy got his answer when he met up with a potato grower who explained that they needed to drill for water and could only find it by going down 350m. The fact that it takes 500ltrs of water to produce 1kg of potatoes and that Egypt exported 2.6m tonnes in 2007 did not register on the Jimmy radar. I would like to have asked how long the water will last. Then there was the question of fertiliser as sand is, well, sand. The answer was that it is added to the water. Simple.

The real killer was when Jimmy learned that the seed potatoes came from Scotland and the peat used for packing was imported to Egypt from Ireland. He did eventually ask whether all this transport was really necessary just to provide us with ‘fresh’ potatoes in the middle of winter.

Then on to Kenya to see how beans are grown and harvested. Once again the childlike wonder showed through when the grower explained that only straight beans were allowed to be sent to the UK because that is what the buyers (supermarkets) wanted. Jimmy was slightly shocked that bent beans were trashed.

The final visit was to a pineapple farm in another part of Africa. The focus here was the processing plant that packed pineapple pieces and air freighted them to the UK. But Jimmy said it was all OK because regular passenger flights were used.

The whole programme was a cross between a broadcast for schools and a PR piece from supermarkets. It felt like the aim was to provide a whole heap of justification for the sheer lunacy that is the food supply chain. Why we need to airfreight tiny bits of pineapple in neat little plastic trays or have fresh potatoes in January is beyond me. Is it just because the technology is there to make it possible? Or is it because exploiting people in poorer countries is so easy? Or, dare I say it; is it to turn a profit regardless of the environmental consequences?

To be fair Jimmy did say that 40% of lorry movements were associated with food but I guess that was secondary to the awe and wonder of such clever farming and technology. It was a shame he did not spell out more of the consequences of what he saw as he could have educated us to the real costs of cheap food i.e. the Earth.

Supermarkets at root of vegetable supply problem

The recent cold weather has proved two things: 1) at the first sign of  food shortages people panic and clear supermarkets shelves. 2) The supermarket supply chain is so precarious it cannot cope with even a few days of bad weather.

A recent article in The Guardian detailed some of the problems faced by producers. Not only was it difficult to harvest vegetables it was hard to get them delivered. Growers used to harvest in the autumn and store things like carrots until they were needed. Now they leave them in the ground covered with straw and lift as demanded by the supermarkets and get them to a distribution centre.

About 80% of all supermarket supplies of carrots now come from just 10 major packers in East Anglia, Scotland and the north of England. At this time of year, more than half the carrots the UK eats have to make their way from north-east Scotland, where the fields over the past fortnight have been frozen, to centralised distribution depots and back out again to stores.

Milk collections from farms were also hit by the bad weather with some farmers having to dump milk while local supermarkets had run out or were rationing customers. Milk is particularly vulnerable as Huw Bowles, director of the organic co-operative OMSCO said

“Forty years ago milk was processed closer to where it was produced and delivered back to the same area.”  The drive to make industry logistics as economically efficient as possible has also removed any slack. OMSCO has cut the cost of collection by 30% in recent years with these efficiencies but at the price of less resilience. “There are no spare vehicles any more. If the driving speeds are reduced by just 10mph on a nine-hour shift because of snow, they just can’t get round the whole collection; the whole route is affected…”

The total reliance on just in time, JIT, deliveries to stores from a few massive depots is bound to make the supply chain less resilient than it was. Even the smallest glitch in the delivery system will cause distribution problems and stores will quickly run out of supplies.

What does that tell us about supply chain resilience and food security in the UK?

Wasting away?

An article in The Times today (Opinion p. 26) by Tristram Stuart once again draws attention the huge waste of food in the UK. The figures are large, up to 20 million tonnes a year. While we all might protest about the amount supermarkets discard what is even worse is the amount wasted by consumers:

And then there’s the waste in our own homes, where consumers discard £12 billion of groceries annually, including £280 million of milk and nearly 100,000 tonnes of poultry meat.

The food packing and processing industry is also responsible for throwing away perfectly edible food such as misshapen or wrong sized fruit and veg. That is clearly ridiculous yet we have only ourselves to blame. Over the years supermarkets have got consumers hooked on the idea that aesthetics equals quality, i.e. if it looks good then it is good. The quality of fresh fruit and veg should be about nutrient density and freshness and not unblemished skin and perfect size but these qualities matter little in the high turnover industrial food system we now have.

Food security is also much in the news these days and crop scientists are desperately trying to convince us that some new technological fix will solve all the problems. But will it? Perhaps there should first be a drive to discard less as it is plainly idiotic to grow perfectly good food and then throw it away before it reaches the shops. Not only is that an almost criminal waste of food it is also a waste of the energy used in production, transport and processing.

Clearly this situation cannot continue but who will stop it? Can we rely on the food chain to be sensible or is a high level of waste just an inevitable consequence of an ever more industrialised food system? Will consumers be prepared to eat ugly veg or misshapen fruit?

I do not know than answers but there is one thing that I am sure of, when you turn soil, plant seeds, weed crops and then harvest what you have grown your attitude to food changes. In other words it is surprising what you will eat when you have worked to get it! Misshapen veg, ugly fruit – delicious! Waste – nonexistent.

Food inc.

Yesterday a film arrived from the US, Food Inc is about, well food, the way it is produced and marketed in the US which is much the same as in any other ‘developed’ country.

Some food has become universal, the same the world over. If you go in to any branch of McDonalds (or any other fast food chain) you get the same product no matter where you are. That means producing and distributing the ingredients on a massive scale.

One of the most alarming parts of the film were the US feed lots where huge numbers of cows are ‘grown’ in concrete floored pens. And then there were the equivalent chicken factories.

The point is that industrial food factories have become necessary to supply industrial scale food retailing. If we want the same food at the same outlets anywhere in the world then that needs an industrial scale supply chain.

In the UK a few supermarkets dominate; they provide the illusion of choice yet the food they sell comes from very few suppliers. That makes us vulnerable to problems in the ‘supply chain’.

This is a very powerful film and one that everybody should see. It made me think that we are teetering on the edge of disaster not just in terms of the fragility of the supply chain but also of the massive affects on human health and the destruction of the environment from factory food.

There was a small sheet of paper with the film – “10 things you can do to change our food system.”

  1. Stop drinking soda and other sweetened beverages.
  2. Eat at home instead of eating out.
  3. Support the passage of laws that require chain restaurants to post calorie information on menus and menu boards.
  4. Tell schools to stop selling sodas, junk food and sports drinks.
  5. Meatless Mondays – go without meat one day a week.
  6. Buy organic or sustainable food with little or no pesticide use.
  7. Protect family farms, visit your local farmers market.
  8. Make a point to know where your food comes from  –  READ LABELS.
  9. Tell Congress (or your government equivalent) that food safety is important to you.
  10. Demand job protection for farm workers and food processors ensuring fair wage and other protections.

Swimming against the tide

British supermarkets are complaining that it is costing them more to source non GM food and are lobbying Hilary Benn to allow them to change the regulations.

Traditional suppliers for UK supermarkets – such as Brazil and the US – are now switching to GM foods, and UK retailers would be swimming against the tide not to accept their provision. Businesses have to pay 10-20% more for organic supplies of goods like soya and maize.

Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi, Marks and Spencer, Co-op and Somerfield are meeting with civil servants to discuss the problem. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has backed the switch from non-GM foods to genetically modified products, and identifies this as key to the future of the British grocery supply chain. This has sparked furious reactions from environmental groups.

According to International Supermarkets News supermarkets cannot sustain the extra costs of sourceing non GM food stuffs i.e. it eats into their exceedingly high profits. That makes me very angry as it shows once more that supermarkets will always compromise on quality to make money.

Take action
If you think that forcing GM food on us, whether we like it or not, is not the way to go contact Hilary Benn and tell him what to do with GM food. Also, tell the supermarkets you don’t want GM food – see below for contact details.

Hilary Benn MP
House of Commons

phone 020 7219 6714


Supermarket contact details

Sir Terry Leahy
Chief Executive, Tesco
Tesco House, Delamare Road,
Cheshunt, Herts.
0800 505555
Email: terry.leahy@uk.tesco.com ,

Mr Justin King
Chief Executive
Sainsburys Supermarkets Ltd.
33 Holborn
London EC1N 2HT
0800 636 262

Mr Andrew Bond
Chief Executive, ASDA PLC
ASDA House Southbank
Great Wilson Street,
Leeds LS11 5AD
0500 100 055

Mark Price
CEO Waitrose plc
Central Offices
Southern Industrial Area
Berkshire RG12 8YA
0800 188 884
Email: customer_service@waitrose.co.uk

Mr Marc Bolland
Chief Executive
Wm. Morrison Supermarkets plc
Hilmore House
Gain Lane
Bradford BD3 7DL
0845 611 6111
Email: colin.middlemiss@morrisonsplc.co.uk

Peter Marks
CEO, United Co-operatives Ltd
Sandbrook Park,
Sandbrook Way,
Rochdale, OL11 1RY
08000 686 272
Email: jackie.wright@coop.co.uk

Somerfield Stores Ltd,
Somerfield House,
Whitchurch Lane,
Whitchurch, Bristol BS14 0TJ
Phone: 0117 935 9359

Marks & Spencer
Marks & Spencer Plc
PO Box 288

Aldi Stores
Holly Lane,
0844 406 8800

Wasted food is wasted energy

A new book by Tristram Stuart highlights the immoral and ridiculous waste of food. Stuart makes the point about wasted tomatoes:

The energy that goes into growing the 61,300 tonnes of perfectly good tomatoes that people in the UK throw into their rubbish bins is equal to the amount it takes to grow enough wheat to relieve the hunger of 105m people.  (Read more)

This is truly staggering and Stuart is right to link wasted food to wasted energy especially when crops like tomatoes need such high energy inputs to crop year round.

What this comes down to is the way that food is grown and distributed. If we demand a continual supply of everything, and the ability to buy it any time of the day, there will be waste. It has become part of the supermarket way of life but it cannot continue as we just cannot afford to waste so much food and energy.