Not until I sat in the audience of a school harvest festival did I fully comprehend the accuracy of Joanna Blythman's conclusions in her disturbing book about British supermarkets. As the speaker enthusiastically enjoined us to give thanks for the bountiful British countryside, I noticed that the tin, jar and packet labels on the produce heaped up around us defiantly gave the lie to the vision being described; fresh produce, rustic suppliers and local provenance were nowhere in sight. We were celebrating something that no longer existed, but the transformation had been so subtle, and yet so complete, that we were oblivious to the truth.
Shopped explains the key role supermarkets have played in this unwelcome transformation and makes explicit the consequences for our food. Blythman argues convincingly that supermarkets have fundamentally altered our landscape and our values, and that if action is not taken, the alteration will soon be complete and irrevocable.
Her introductory examination of the physical changes in our urban and rural landscape as a result of supermarket power sets the scene dramatically for her later arguments and provides the reader with a reference point.
Descriptions of nondescript towns defined by the sprawling supermarkets on their outskirts and empty of small food retailers in the centre are depressingly familiar. As providers of 80 per cent of the food we eat, supermarkets indirectly control immense areas of land and have the power to sculpt ecosystems to suit their commercial objectives. On the whole, urban decay, erosion of choice, shrinking genetic diversity and environmental degradation are of little importance to supermarket managements.
While the physical changes wrought as a result of supermarkets are undoubtedly important to Blythman, it is their less tangible influences that really concern her. Especially supermarkets' idolisation of price and profit as the key criterion in making decisions about food. Slogans such as "Everyday low prices" and "Every little helps" have permeated consumers'
consciousness to such an extent that many have been brainwashed. To achieve the lowest possible prices, supermarkets have sacrificed range and quality, and buyers have accepted this, apparently preferring that our food should get cheaper and cheaper. (In 1958, 26 per cent of UK consumer spending went on food; in 1998 it was 10.3 per cent.) Blythman argues that it is not possible to keep reducing prices without consequences, and that we should be more aware of the cost of these price reductions to beleaguered producers and an abused food chain.
Supermarkets will not tolerate producers that upset their systems and reduce their profit margins. They set exacting standards to ensure optimum appearance, size and shelf life of "fresh" food - however irrelevant these requirements may be to optimum flavour. The idea of local produce is unwelcome, even anathema, to the economics of a supermarket chain, for local produce requires a flexible system able to adjust to the vagaries of small-scale seasonal crop growing, and is more expensive. Moreover, acting responsibly towards producers and remaining loyal to them generally goes against the commercial interest of supermarkets. So producers are regularly changed, as a long-term relationship between supermarket and producer may cloud judgement when it comes to the key question of profit.
True, it is almost a cliche to lament the exploitation of producers by supermarkets. Yet Blythman uncovers so many examples, of such a serious kind, that she still manages to shock. Her underlying message is that supermarkets have been so successful in distancing us from the food we eat that we have become utterly ignorant of the very real cost of creating their vision of perfection. Only when flavour has become so totally degraded and British farmers have been driven out of business will most of us begin to question the values imposed on us.
There is an appropriate urgency about this book. Supermarkets are looking to move into the remaining 20 per cent of the food market; they are expanding into non-food ranges; they are opening in other countries. This is a good time to limit their further development. In the final section of Shopped , Blythman provides suggestions at both a personal and a political level. I think most readers will feel bound to adopt at least one of them after reading her book. It is a superbly constructed argument that combines meticulous investigation and brutal logic with elegant writing. If at times she seems to become overwhelmed with passion for her cause, she completely justifies it - at least for this reader.
Zoe Sprigings is a student at Somerville College, Oxford, who is active in the movement for non-supermarket food.
Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets
Author - Joanna Blythman
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Pages - 368
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 00 715803 3