Monday, June 12, 2006

super horror at the super market

Not on the Label (ISBN: 0141015667), by Felicity Lawrence.

Review by Marcopolo. Montage by Mike Lesser.

This is an outstanding and fascinating book, and difficult to review since almost every page contains noteworthy facts and figures and insights. It follows roughly the same pattern as 'Fast Food Nation' by Eric Schlosser, and 'Shopped' by Joanna Blythman; i.e. an in-depth review of the industrialisation of our food supply. But Lawrence goes much further into the overall global situation and reveals a veritable catalogue of disasters.

Most of the book concerns the multinational supermarkets, with the remainder examining the multinational "agribusinesses" (Monsanto, Cargill, etc), and food companies. It`s highly instructive to read that the latter, including giants like Nestle and Unilever, have in recent years been severely pressured by the major supermarket chains, which have grown so large, rich and powerful in the last 30-odd years that they`re now able to dictate terms to those companies.

Apart from that, they`ve stealthily taken over a large percentage of the entire global food market, and have caused immense environmental and social damage at every stage of the food chain. It starts with the poisoning of the soil and groundwater due to the chemicals used in industrial farming (for instance 55% of the UK`s groundwater is now "nitrate vulnerable", a euphemism for chemically polluted), and continues with the appalling conditions and treatment inflicted upon literally billions of factory-farm animals.

At the other end of the food chain are the hapless general public, who are consuming unnatural polluted food and drinks. This has resulted in an explosion of obesity, disease and ill-health in the West and in other countries which have adopted a modern Western diet: for instance it`s estimated that half of all middle-aged Britons are suffering from a "clinically evident nutritional problem"; and diet is actually now on a par with tobacco as a cause of illness.

The alarm bells are also ringing in all of the intervening stages of the industrialised food chain:

1) An estimated 2.5 billion people around the world depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, a majority of them in developing countries; agricultural industrialisation is increasingly marginalising and impoverishing them, driving many of them off their land and into towns and cities; this has created enormous social problems in many countries.

2) A huge pool of underpaid migrant workers has been created who live and work in conditions not much better than the industrial livestock; these people are an essential part of the multinationals` operations, enabling them to keep their profits at a maximum. Once again the problem is global; here in the UK large agricultural areas have been inundated with cheap labour, most of them impoverished immigrants, causing immense pressure on local housing and infrastructure and creating social tensions with the locals.

3) Pollution has increased enormously under the industrialised farming system. Apart from the chemicals used on the crops and animals, the transportation of food around the world and around various countries uses vast amounts of fuel; for instance in "the good old days" food was driven from surrounding areas into local markets, wholesalers and shops, and imported produce (eg tea, coffee, bananas etc) was transported by sea. Nowadays a great deal of supermarket food is imported by air, and the major supermarkets` lorries travel almost one billion kilometres per year on the UK`s overcrowded roads. With 40% of lorries on the UK`s roads used by industrial food suppliers, the quality of life for all of us has declined, as the lorries blight our lives with pollution, noise, and danger, and ever-larger roads are built to accommodate them.

4) The importation of cheap food from other (usually third-world) countries has decimated the farming sector in the West, and in many other countries as well, with the result that here in the UK, from being a food-surplus nation a few decades ago we are now only 4% self-sufficient in fruit and 52% self-sufficient in vegetables (and most of them are denatured and polluted). This is a highly uneconomic and unstable situation, and countless thousands of farmers have gone bankrupt. Also the effects on the third-world countries participating in the multinationals` system has been little short of devastating, as traditional smallholders have been forced off their land and superseded by industrial farms, and are now locked into a cycle of poverty and exploitation. Many third-world people are starving while their countries` industrialised farms export food to the West.

5) The industrialisation of our food supply has created many more social problems. Apart from bankrupting millions of smallholding farmers, large supermarkets have bankrupted countless independent retailers, with the result that many areas in the UK and the West are now "food deserts", with little or no fresh food available locally. This results in yet more pollution as shoppers have to drive to the nearest (usually out of town) supermarket, and causes immense hardship for people without cars. Also of course local communities are adversely effected on many levels, from the bankrupting of local shops and smallholders, with accompanying unemployment, to the loss of traditional skills (butchers, bakers etc), to the loss of local social interaction and cohesion.

6) The supermarkets` avaricious practices include transferring the cost of storing food onto the suppliers and ordering it at short notice when they need it (another area where a cheap mobile workforce is required); this means that nowadays supermarkets hold little or no stock apart from what`s on the shelves. And this means that the whole supply depends on the uninterrupted flow of fuel for the lorries. As we all know, oil is running out and the Middle East is highly volatile. Here in the UK we got a taste of what could happen when oil supplies falter during the fuel strike in 2000; one senior government official admitted that we were within days of running out of food, and bread was within hours of running out. This is a very precarious situation.

Lawrence makes hundreds of other important observations throughout the book and builds up a solid body of evidence exposing the incalculable damage being wrought by the supermarkets and multinationals.

However at the end of the book there`s a comprehensive section detailing what we can do to stop the rot, or at least alleviate it, with pages of details for further information.

Obviously the most simple and effective method is to stop shopping in supermarkets and use local retailers and food supply-delivery companies; the latter deliver fresh food to your doorstep, saving the time and trouble of shopping.

It is imperative that we change our shopping habits to prevent the supermarkets` stranglehold on the global food chain getting any tighter.

ASDA, who have gone down hill as well as down market ever since being gobbled up by Walmart, recently paid a reported £3.5m to the footballer Wayne Rooney and his fiancée Coleen McLoughlin help flog athletes foot powder amongst other things. Now they are being accused of selling rotten food along with the rotten foot medicine.

A recent film 'Wal-Mart - The High Price of Low Cost' shows how the worlds biggest retailer of junk food, forces smaller competitors out of business, pays its employees so badly they have to claim welfare payments, and conducts witch hunts against anyone who joins a union.

Watch this space for details of a corporate revolution being planned by the schmookovists.

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1 comment:

stevenup said...

A well written and perceptive review. Lets not become 'we are what they eat'