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How the Superstores Gave Us Foot and Mouth


George Monbiot

"You

enterprised a railroad through the valley," John Ruskin charged the railway

companies in 1889. "The valley is gone, and the gods with it; and now every

fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at

Buxton." God knows what he would have made of the 21st century livestock

trade.

Today,

every sheep in Northumberland can be at Devon in half a day, and every sheep in

Devon at Northumberland. And, as the government discovered to its astonishment

this week, their diseases travel with them. Why is this happening? Almost

everyone, radical commentators included, agrees that it’s because the public

wants "cheap food". They’re wrong.

There’s

no doubt that the modern food economy encourages long distance transport.

Between 1965 and 1998, the international trade in food tripled, to 600 million

metric tonnes. In Britain the transport of milk has increased 30-fold since

1980. To meet the demands of the global economy, livestock hauliers routinely

break the rules requiring them to rest, feed and water the animals they are

transporting, in some cases all the way from Britain to Beirut.

But

of one thing we can be sure: none of this has anything to do with the needs of

consumers. This myth can be dismissed by means of a complex research procedure

called going shopping. In my home town, independent butchers selling local meat

charge some 30% less than the superstores. Even the organic lamb on sale in the

farmers’ market marginally undercuts the poisoned produce the big chains sell.

Yet the superstores, as they often boast, are far more efficient than small

shops. They exert an iron grip on their suppliers, they employ just one fifth of

the staff per unit of turnover, they enjoy, in most places, lower business

rates. Consumers have not benefitted from these economies. The current epidemic

of foot and mouth is the result of structural market changes introduced solely

to safeguard the profits of the superstores.

They

buy, for example, only from the biggest farmers, employing the fewest staff.

This means that more animals are crammed together, with fewer people to check

their state of health. They lobby to ensure that the burden of regulation falls

not on them and their suppliers, but on small business. This is one of the

reasons why so many local abattoirs have collapsed in Britain, forcing farmers

to send their animals ever further afield. Ironically, the food poisoning which

helped justify the tighter inspection regime is mostly the result of the large

scale agro-industry the supermarkets have encouraged: the sins of the giants are

visited upon the dwarves.

They

have lobbied too, to be allowed to cheat their customers, by changing the rules

on provenance. "Scotch beef" and "Welsh lamb" now come from

animals pastured in Scotland or Wales for just two weeks. They are trucked all

over the United Kingdom so that the stores can change their designation and thus

raise the price of their meat. This is not about cheap food. It’s about

expensive food.

But

most importantly, by trading directly with the big producers they control, the

big chains have cut out the middleman. The result is that livestock markets have

disappeared as swiftly as the slaughterhouses. Now, in order to sell their

animals to independent butchers, farmers in some parts of the country must drive

them hundreds of miles. The superstores themselves have centralised their

distribution networks, trucking livestock from Land’s End to John O’Groats and

the butchered meat back to Land’s End.

Their

profits are extracted only at enormous cost to ourselves. The billions they make

are matched by the billions the taxpayer spends on road building and

maintenance, environmental remediation, hospital bills for the victims of food

poisoning and, of course, mass slaughter programmes. The animals pay too, by

means of the appalling conditions in which they are reared and trucked. Yet the

savings the supermarkets make are not passed to the farmers, and they are not

passed to consumers.

The

power of the superstores ensures that others must be blamed for the disasters

they precipitate. The farmers being investigated in Northumberland may well have

neglected their animals, but since the big chains started buying their pork from

gigantic industrial batteries, the farmgate price has collapsed, forcing the

remaining producers to spend ever less time and money on their pigs. Badgers are

blamed for bovine TB, while the mass transit of infectious cattle is overlooked.

And the underlying problem, we are universally informed, is us.

 

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