Are Supermarkets Facing the Beginning of the End?

CC BY 2.0. Dean Hochman -- It's 'Permanent Global Summer Time' at the supermarket, where corn and strawberries are in season simultaneously.

In the face of climate change, water shortages, and political instability, the current supermarket model is extremely vulnerable.

Supermarkets have got it all wrong. The model on which they operate, offering a vast selection of fresh fruits and vegetables imported from distant places year-round, is simply unsustainable. It depends on great quantities of fossil fuels to heat greenhouses and to fly or truck long distances, and precious resources like fresh water, often taken from places that don’t have much water to begin with.

The precariousness of this model became apparent earlier this winter, when the UK experienced shortages of lettuce, zucchini, spinach, and other green vegetables. Because of severe flooding in Spain, these foods were not available to import. Suddenly UK supermarkets were scrambling to fly produce across the Atlantic, all the way from California, at a tremendous financial loss to themselves. Why? To maintain the status quo, to stock shelves the ‘usual’ way, because shoppers have come to expect iceberg lettuce in January.

As Felicity Lawrence points out in an excellent Guardian article called “The supermarket food gamble might be up,” supermarkets rely on the import of out-of-season produce in order to compete in the grocery world. Without those fancy pyramids of colorful fruits in the middle of winter that set big food retailers apart from their corner-store rivals, who would really want to shop there? This is why climate change, as evidenced by the floods in Spain, could be the beginning of the end for supermarkets as we know them.

Lawrence describes the model as vulnerable, inhabiting a weird sort of “Permanent Global Summer Time” that depends on two fatal flaws – (1) the profligate use of finite resources, and (2) the exploitation of cheap migrant labor.

A diet based on imported tropicals and out-of-season produce often ends up exploiting fragile ecosystems elsewhere. Lawrence writes:

“Depending on whose figures you take, between a fifth and a third of UK emissions relate to food. The UK is the sixth largest importer in the world of virtual water – the water needed to produce our food elsewhere.”

As for cheap labour, the issue of migrant workers, often illegal and undocumented, has become a highly contentious political issue.

“Migrant labour is not coincidental but structural to the just-in-time model, which needs the extreme flexibility of a class of desperate workers to function. Low-paid migrants, predominantly from eastern Europe, have become the backbone of the UK’s centralised distribution centres, providing 35% of food manufacturing labour, and 70-80% of harvesting labour.”

Closer to home, in America, it is difficult to imagine how the agricultural system will work without the assistance of the migrant workers that the new president is so eager to repatriate. It seems unlikely that a great number of Americans will want to take over those back-breaking, low-paying jobs.

Lawrence sees Brexit as an opportunity for the UK to rethink its food system and fortify it against the threats of water shortages, climate change, and political upheaval. Big changes are in store, regardless, as new tariffs will be imposed on a nation that currently imports almost half of what its population eats.

Change, however, can start with individuals at home.


© K Martinko -- The reality of a winter CSA share is beets, beets, and more beets.

We can make our diets more secure and sustainable by eating seasonally, opting for foods that are grown closer to home without the added carbon footprint of greenhouses and transportation. This would help to support local farmers who struggle to make a living. The only problem is that it requires a shift in taste. We can no longer expect to eat cucumber, Romaine, and cherry tomato salads in the middle of winter, but rather content ourselves with roasted beets, shredded cabbage salads, and turnip bisques -- only until those other wonderful foods come back into season, at which point we should gorge ourselves and preserve like crazy.

It’s a hard sell for many, but a step that’s better to take proactively, than to have it forced upon us by unexpected and inconvenient shortages.