Wandability

Hugh Pennington

  • Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets by Joanna Blythman
    Fourth Estate, 368 pp, £12.99, May 2004, ISBN 0 00 715803 3
  • Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate by Felicity Lawrence
    Penguin, 272 pp, £7.99, May 2004, ISBN 0 14 101566 7
  • Food Policy Old and New edited by Simon Maxwell and Rachel Slater
    Blackwell, 184 pp, £19.99, March 2004, ISBN 1 4051 2602 7

Joanna Blythman does not like supermarkets. The bigger they are, the greater her hatred. She says they are responsible for the slow death of community life. They take the skill out of shopping. They subvert home cooking. They have done away with seasonal variety. Their buyers are bullied by their superiors to bully their suppliers. Supermarkets have an obsession with hygiene at the expense of food quality. They sell squidgy bread. And they call their staff ‘colleagues’.

Felicity Lawrence’s dislike of contemporary food production methods and systems is equally strong. She disapproves of broiler chickens. The use of migrant seasonal labour and gangmasters affronts her. Ready meals are a bad thing. Just-in-time delivery to local supermarkets from central warehouses and the transport of food by air contribute to global warming. Supermarkets are too powerful. And the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and globalisation work against our interests.

Blythman and Lawrence’s views are shared by many influential journalists and broadcasters, leaders of lobby groups and writers. Their books are well written and well informed. They raise important issues. But they will not give you a balanced view or a dispassionate analysis of food production and retailing. Their emotional fervour and polemical tendencies place them firmly in the category of 20th-century works addressing the impact of industry and science on living things best exemplified by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But they also belong to a much older tradition. Ruskin eloquently attacked the impact of industrialisation, in particular the dehumanisation of factory workers. We can be pretty certain that he would disapprove of the monotony and lack of skill inherent in checkout technology as much as he did the mindless machine-attending in Victorian textile mills.

For Ruskin, the villain of the piece was steam. Blythman despises supermarkets: he vituperated railways. The similarities are striking. There were oligopolies in the 19th-century railway, and many of those enjoyed local monopolies, too. The popular press campaigned against their apparent disregard for their customers. Governments were pressed to increase regulation – but nearly always declined. Many railway stations were public buildings of an unprecedented size, bigger than cathedrals. Supermarkets today sometimes cut deals with local councils, promising to build amenities in return for planning permission. In 1863, Glasgow University sold for demolition its mid-17th-century double-quadrangled college and a range of 18th-century buildings to the Glasgow Union Railway for £100,000, so it could move to a less smelly and smoky part of town. Although trains were – and still are – the safest mode of transport ever devised, the horror of crashes, however rare, attracted enough publicity to provide the main reason for regulation. Similarly, the laws governing food retailers have their origins in food-poisoning outbreaks. Just as corner shops have been affected by supermarkets, small local firms lost out to the railways – stagecoach operators went out of business in droves. The suburbs, meanwhile, grew and grew.

Another thing that Ruskin, Blythman and Lawrence have in common is a low opinion of the public. Blythman and Lawrence imply that we have allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into spending huge sums on dodgy chickens in supermarkets. Ruskin had a similar view of railway passengers:

You enterprised a railroad through the valley – you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. 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; which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you fools everywhere.

Blythman and Lawrence describe contemporary food retailing and production systems, but do not explain why they are as they are. Fast food, supermarkets, the trafficking of food across the globe, industrialised food production and seasonal migrant labour are not the result of the sudden overthrow of previous systems but have developed over many decades, even centuries.

In 1912, Lancaster had 38 fish and chip shops, one for every thousand inhabitants. It was cheap street food. There were just as many when I was growing up there in the 1940s and 1950s. But in the US in the 1920s, carhops had begun to appear: white-jacketed youngsters who would bring lunch on a tray that could be clamped to the customer’s car door. Their roadside stands were followed by highway cafés, drive-ins (with carhops), outdoor walk-ups (with service window and no carhops), indoor walk-ups (with dining-rooms) and double drive-ins (very cheap, with simple menus, dashboard dining and 45-second service).

Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s as we know it, is not mentioned in Not on the Label or Shopped, in spite of his interest in the mass production of standardised french fries. But without the car there would be no McDonald’s – and there would be no supermarkets. It isn’t a coincidence that the publication of the Beeching Report on The Reshaping of British Railways in 1963 came between the opening of Tesco’s first big store, in Leicester in 1961 (16,500 square feet), and Asda’s first, in Nottingham in 1965 (70,000 square feet). Beeching accepted that cars and lorries had finished off the stopping train and the slow goods train (except for those carrying coal) as economic entities. Buxton station was one of those listed for closure, which might have pleased Ruskin (or not). Supermarkets and road vehicles have sped on together ever since; retailers who stuck to the high street have gone the way of the railway, even the Co-op, although its market share in the early 1980s was greater than that of any retailer before or since. So the rise of the supermarket happened thanks to the car; to self-service, which dates from the opening of the first self-service store, Piggly Wiggly, in Memphis, Tennessee in 1916; to economies of scale; and to the ruthless and effective use of information technology.

If the signature sound of a railway station used to be the shriek of the guard’s whistle, at the supermarket it’s the pinging of the bar-code reader. Its development was a technological and administrative tour de force. It has to detect and decode the information presented to it by hand (so it has to be able to work at various angles) and under bright lights (using even brighter light but not making much heat). The Nobel Prize-winning inventions of the laser, holography and the microprocessor combined to make this possible. The bar code itself has to contain redundancy (so it can be decoded even with some bars missing), omnidirectional readability (so it’s interpretable from left to right and vice versa), and ‘wandability’ (so it can be read with a simple hand-held device). All of this needed to be incorporated in a system that could be universally adopted by businesses aggressively seeking competitive advantage. Agreement about the likely benefits to all came in the early 1970s, and the first bar-coded item, a packet of Wrigley’s chewing-gum, crossed a scanner in Troy, Ohio, in June 1974.

The bar-code reader generates data that computers can use to order new stock in real time. These just-in-time deliveries are seen as a good thing by supermarkets, because they save money. Lawrence doesn’t like them because the supplies come from central warehouses in greenhouse-gas-generating lorries criss-crossing the country. But ‘food miles’ are not new. Defoe describes seeing forty thousand Scots cattle feeding on the meadows between Norwich and Yarmouth in 1724, having been driven from north of the border. They were to walk on to Smithfield. Dionysius Lardner, in his 1850 book Railway Economy, calculated that, in the year ending 30 June 1847, cattle, pigs and sheep had travelled 134,030,942 miles by rail. Cattle and steam locomotives (particularly the grossly inefficient coke-burning ones of Lardner’s day) both produce lots of methane and carbon dioxide, the strongest greenhouse gases.

Local production and sourcing would reduce food miles. This is clearly not a British option for pineapples, bananas and oranges, or a Scottish option for maize, or an Orkney option for apples. But until the public turns away from price as the main determinant of food choice, it will not be possible for British farmers anywhere to make much more than a minor contribution. There have been some (mainly middle-class) marketing successes, such as organic food (most of which is imported), but most financial high points for British farmers have been the result of subsidies, tariff barriers, U-boats – and productivity gains as a result of technology. Lawrence gives a positive account of British farming just before the Second World War. She does not mention that from 1932 it was supported by subsidies and marketing schemes, and protected by tariffs and import restrictions, but still produced less than half the food consumed in the country; from 1934 to 1938, 88 per cent of flour was imported, 93 per cent of fats (butter, lard and margarine), 82 per cent of sugar, 76 per cent of cheese and 74 per cent of fruit and tomatoes.

‘The war had also seen the rapid development of chemical works to process nitrates for the manufacture of explosives,’ Lawrence writes. ‘In peacetime, these companies were looking for a new use, and so the mass marketing of nitrate fertilisers for agriculture began.’ There is some truth in this account, but not much. In the 1850s Britain annually imported more than 200,000 tonnes of Peruvian guano for use as a nitrogen fertiliser. Chilean nitrate replaced it and by the end of the 19th century British companies controlled 60 per cent of the output of the huge Tarapacá and Antofagasta deposits. Thanks to this, English wheat yields were double the global average. But the most important event in the history of nitrate fertilisers occurred in the Karlsruhe Technische Hochschule on 2 July 1909, when Fritz Haber demonstrated the continuous synthesis of ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen. Within four years, Carl Bosch at the Badische Anilin-und-Soda-Fabrik (BASF) had replicated Haber’s laboratory achievement on an industrial scale. This was not easy. Haber’s process needed high pressures (100 atmospheres) and high temperatures (greater than 500°C). It used osmium as a catalyst. The world supply of this rare metal came to about 100 kg, and although BASF owned most of it, it was far too little for industrial scale-up. Bosch turned to an iron catalyst, which worked. By October 1913, a giant factory at Oppau near Ludwigshafen was making ten tonnes of ammonia a day. Its output was intended for agriculture. (In September 1921, a silo of ammonium salts at Oppau exploded, killing 561 people and destroying much of the plant.) In 1914 the supply of Chilean nitrate was cut off, and after the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, all BASF’s ammonia went to make munitions. In April 1915, Haber superintended the first use of gas warfare, at Ypres: 168 tonnes of chlorine killed five thousand French soldiers. His wife shot herself with his army revolver ten days later. Haber’s award of the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his ammonia process was ill-received by the victors of the war. For a time they listed him as a war criminal. In 1933 he went into exile: he was Jewish. The linden tree planted in 1928 to commemorate his 60th birthday, in the grounds of the Berlin research institute that he had run for many years, was uprooted. And BASF became part of I.G. Farben. Lawrence is right to make a link between nitrogen fertiliser and war, but she chooses the wrong conflict. She is also only half right in saying that the use of nitrogen fertiliser took off after the Second World War because manufacturers were looking for other uses for their bomb factories. Global ammonia output was lower than it had been in the late 1920s because plants in Europe and Japan had been destroyed. Nitrogen fertiliser production increased with demand as food rationing came to an end and hybrid corn cultivation took off in the US: its high yields needed a lot of fertiliser.

Vaclav Smil, in Enriching the Earth (2001), rates Haber’s process as the most important technological invention of the 20th century. ‘All the children to be seen running around or leading docile water buffaloes in China’s southern provinces, throughout the Nile Delta, or in the manicured landscape of Java,’ Smil says, ‘got their body proteins, via urea their parents spread on bunded fields, from the Haber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia. Without this synthesis, about two-fifths of the world’s population would not be around – and the dependence will only increase as the global count moves from six to nine or ten billion people.’

Lawrence opens her chapter on chickens: ‘It was the scald tank that got me in the end. I had expected trouble in the slaughter room, but we’d moved there without incident. We’d already passed the electrocution bath and I’d slipped easily enough round the neck cutters slicing through carotid arteries.’ She minces her words. Chicken slaughterhouses are truly grim. The only skill needed to supplement the apparatus that automatically kills, scalds, defeathers, eviscerates, debones and packs is that of the operative who slits the throats of the birds misplaced on the conveyor. The chicken business is cut-throat in other ways, too. Competition is fierce and international. Profit margins are minuscule. The productivity of workers in the industry is high, but incomes are low. Breeding birds to increase the rate and efficiency with which they convert food to muscle and to maximise breast-meat yield is a continual trade-off against metabolic disease and male infertility. Most consumers are unaware of all this. They have become voracious eaters of white meat, which in some countries is now cheaper than potatoes. Consumption in the US has increased steadily since Herbert Hoover’s promise of ‘a chicken in every pot’ in 1928; it rose a hundredfold between 1934 and 1994, from a quarter of a chicken a year to half a chicken a week. In Britain we buy more than a million tonnes every year.

Food Policy Old and New, edited by Simon Maxwell and Rachel Slater, contains papers first published in the Overseas Development Institute’s journal Development Policy Review, and analyses policy options, especially for developing countries. Supermarkets, we are told, are spreading there, too. Urbanisation is having big effects; fast food from street vendors in Accra already provides a higher proportion of calorie intake for the city’s poorest inhabitants than fish and chip shops did in Lancaster a century ago. Security of supply in failed states and war zones is a particular problem. But one thing is universal: obesity. It is as bad in Egypt and South Africa as it is in the United States. It is a condition of the poor.

Food policy-makers have few remedies to offer. Blythman and Lawrence have the same difficulty. Don’t shop at supermarkets, they say. Regulate and tax them more, and make it more difficult for them to get planning permission. Tax air fuel. Their recommendations display, as Gladstone said of Ruskin, ‘a mixture of virtuous absolutism and Christian socialism’. Yet they seem resigned to the prospect of supermarkets being with us for the foreseeable future. Ruskin wrote in the mid 1870s of ‘the stupid herd of modern tourists’ who ‘let themselves be emptied, like coals from a sack, at Windermere’, and he has lately won his fight against the railway there: in 1985 the station was turned into a supermarket.