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Keep it Local! Part one - Local Food

keep it local, local food, local business, anti-consumerism, supermarkets, traditional business, community, sustainability

In 1964, when the UK Government scrapped the Retail Price Maintenance (which set the price for goods in shops) they could never have envisaged the devastating effect that would have on the British High Street. For the first time retailers who bought in bulk were able to pass their savings on to their customers and consumers were given the opportunity to compare prices and pick up bargains. The big boys were piling ‘em high and selling ‘em cheap, and that’s what the public wanted. The arrival of the first self-service supermarket (Tesco in Malden) just eight years previously heralded a revolution in the way people shopped. They wanted the convenience of a one-stop shop. Supermarkets marched into every high street in the UK, sounding the death knell for the independent trader.

Asda Walmart is now the world's largest company by turnover, while Tesco takes one in every three pounds spent in the UK. Tesco may control around 30 percent of the grocery market in the UK, with over £2 billion in profits last year, but growing evidence indicates that their success is partly based on trading practices that are having serious consequences for suppliers, farmers, overseas workers, local shops and the environment. Of course they are not the only supermarket chain to have a detrimental effect on local trade, but with a dozen outlets in Bristol alone – and more on the way – they are without doubt the most aggressive, set on driving smaller retailers out of business in an unending campaign to be the biggest. According to a report in the Guardian last month: “The big four supermarkets control 75 per cent of the £80bn grocery sector. In 1945, there were 500,000 independent retailers; today the number is down to 30,000 - and more than 2,000 went out of business last year”. More than 13,000 specialist stores, including butchers, bakers, fishmongers and newsagents, closed between 1997 and 2002, leaving many communities without accessible shops and services. Those are shocking figures, and, with more and more people choosing to shop online now, it’s not just the big out-of-town stores that are threatening the traditional High Street.

However, the independent retailer is fighting back. In a move led by people concerned about everything from globalization to food poisoning, artisan and specialist food shops are making a comeback. As Nick Rapps, of Sheep drove Organic Farm Butchers says: “Many people don't know where their meat comes from, but I think things are changing. Lots of people are choosing not to buy stuff with food miles on it, and a lot of people have gone from being vegetarian to eating meat because of the local and organic thing. This butchers is actually under no threat from places like Tesco – we've got a Tesco store next door that does everything much cheaper - but people still choose to come here because it's local. As my boss always says, there have been two complete generations of people, the supermarket generations, who have never shopped this way. We're trying to change that.”

When the UK’s first regular Farmer’s Market opened in Bath in September 1997 it helped to make consumers aware of a grass-roots revolution which was already gathering momentum, and the prototype has rolled out countrywide to phenomenal success. Shoppers worried about BSE, foot and mouth, salmonella and so on started to realize that the intensively farmed, pesticide-laden produce available to them in supermarkets were perhaps not only tasteless but quite possibly detrimental to their health. The supermarkets, never ones to miss a trend, soon climbed on board but, in the majority of cases, got it hopelessly wrong. Does anyone really believe that pre-packed, pre-washed, pre-sliced, gassed-up to the eyeballs salad tastes remotely as good as the fresh, albeit slightly muddy, leaves you can buy in Corn Street, Bristol every Wednesday or Green Park, Bath every Saturday?

Roughly three-quarters of all organic food sold in supermarkets comes from abroad. Organic food might be inherently better for you, but if it’s traveling half way around the world it’s not good for the planet. Traditional farming methods are better for the soil, but over a quarter of all freight on the UK’s roads is transporting agricultural produce. As much as we would all love to buy organically, for many it poses a huge ethical dilemma; those beans in your shopping basket are more likely to have been sourced in Kenya than Keynsham. We may be helping African farmers educate their children by buying their produce, but at what cost to the environment? A report commissioned by Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, revealed that because long distance transport emits carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, one sample basket of imported organic produce could release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as an average four bedroom household does cooking meals for eight months. The 26 products in that basket traveled a distance equivalent to six times round the equator to get to the store. Some types of food will always have to be imported, but some transport is less environmentally damaging than others. Shipping is a better option (road transport generates six times more CO2 and airfreight 50 times more) yet between 1989 and 1999 there was a 90 percent increase in road freight movements of agricultural and food products between the UK and Europe, with UK airfreight doubling over the same period.

The answer is surprisingly simple: buy locally produced food from independent retailers. You may think that supermarkets offer the best deals for shoppers on tight budgets but, without the huge overheads and staff costs, you could find that your groceries are cheaper at your local greengrocers. Local food production helps to strengthen local economies by protecting small farms, local jobs, and local shops. Specialist food shops could not exist without us, as Karen Smyth from Tower Farms Cheese says: “A lot of dairy farms in our area are closing down because there's no money in it. We have to go further a field for our milk. But we're still cheaper than Tesco's or Sainsbury's. It's just mass-produced in the supermarkets, there's no taste. If it's local, at least you know where it comes from.” “If I give someone a whole fish they wouldn’t know what to do with it; they want it to look like it comes from Marks & Spencer,” says Matthew Baldwin from the Hand Picked Shellfish Company. “But that's changing. More and more people are giving local food a go.”

But what exactly do we mean by local? The definition is flexible and open to debate. We could be talking about food produced within 40 miles of our front door (the original criteria for the Bath Farmer’s Market), grown or reared in the whole of the South West region or indeed from anywhere within the UK. There are no hard and fast rules as to what the word local means, and the ethos - reducing the number of miles food has to travel to reach our plate - has to be interpreted with a little common sense. As a consumer you need to base your choice on several criteria; do you want your apples to come from an orchard in Somerset or be flown in from New Zealand and are you willing to eat seasonally? Why are we buying bags of salad in March, when we should be eating the abundant roots which have adapted to our winter climate? As Annie Kline from the Radford Mill Farm shop in Bristol’s Picton Street says: “Here it's all grab a paper bag, have some dirty carrots and wash 'em up at home. One of our ideals is to buy as local as possible to support small businesses, not some mono-agricultural corporation overseas.” Co-worker Becca Stevenson adds: “Today people want their nectarines in February, they want their peppers all year round. If people shopped seasonally, there would be much less impact on the environment. Unfortunately, we do have to stock bananas and things because people have come to expect that, and if they didn't get them here they would go elsewhere. If you buy locally, there is going to be a time in the year when you can't have apples, and people just have to accept that. If the price of oil goes up, then we won't be able to afford food from far away the way we can now. People will have to buy local food.”


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Click here to read Keep it Local! Part two - Local Food

Published: 2006-04-21
Author: Darryl W. Bullock

About the author or the publisher
I am a freelance writer based in the South West of the UK. I specialise in a number of different subjects: food and drink; lesbian and gay issues; music and film; local events and human interest stories.

As well as freelancing I write on a regular basis for several newspapers and magazines in the UK as well as a couple of specialist international publications and several websites.

Examples of my work can be seen at

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