aside The Supermarket That (could have) saved a Continent

When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.Edmund Burke

If there is one thing I wish I did more of it is reading. I don’t buy a newspaper every day, for no better reason than because I know that there is a very good chance that it will sit lonely, neglected and mostly unread on the bathroom window sill. There it will reside until I have finished all three sudoku, after which time the vultures will circle – in the form of my son – and it will be carried off, doomed to end its days as the lining of a hamster cage.

Today I actually read a little of last Friday’s ‘I’, and chanced upon an excellent article written in the wake of a recent report by The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, that claims that up to half the food produced in the world each year – around 2 billion tonnes – will end up being thrown away.

The author of the newspaper article discussed the obsession that the British public in particular have with the appearance of their food, and stated that up to 30% of British crops are thrown away on the basis that their appearance didn’t meet the strict supermarket criteria.

But should we really be surprised at this statistic? Horrified certainly, but not surprised. We live in a society that all too often values beauty above substance, so it is small wonder then, that we apply the same standards to the produce that we consume.

I have in the past been guilty of this myself, preferring the produce in one supermarket over another because it looked, well, nicer. Our obsession with the cult of beauty is an absurdity, but when this obsession is extended to fruit (yes I know the banana plant is actually a herb) and vegetables, it slides into the realms of insanity.

This is not a new situation, it is a slippery slope down which we have all been sliding for many a year. A little careful research will tell you that as long ago as 1994 the European Union was already issuing Diktats on the acceptable appearance of the occupants of our fruit bowls. Commision Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, otherwise known as the ‘bendy banana law’ stated that bananas should be ‘free from deformation or abnormal curvature’ and that ‘The minimum size (with tolerances and exceptions) is a length of 14cm and a thickness grade of 2.7cm.’*   So there you have it; ugly bananas are not allowed in the EU.

The humble banana has never been afraid to court controversy. In the 1990’s, due to the EU’s quota system, Chiquita Brands was losing European market share and lobbied the Clinton administration to sort things out. The UK and France had done a job on Latin America, ensuring that their former colonies in the Caribbean were the principle beneficiaries in banana export quotas to try and help their economies.

It has been said that within 24 hours of Chiquita (previously a Republican Party supporter) donating $500,000 to the Democratic Party, President Clinton lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organisation that the EU was breaching free trade rules. The WTO ruled against the EU in 1997 but Europe was slow to lift restrictions and the US grew impatient, slapping a whopping 100% duty on all European imports. Although not direct banana exporters to the UK, US-owned companies largely controlled Latin American Banana production and at that time had a 75% slice of the EU banana market.

Fast forward to 2003: I was involved in importing fair trade handicrafts from Ecuador to the UK and happened to be staying with some family in Guayaquil. I was introduced to a family friend who had a major interest in farming in Ecuador. Their main crops were Bananas and Mangos and they exported to the US and to Europe.

I was invited to visit one of the farms and accepted, and was frankly amazed at the high level of technical innovation taking place in what many people still consider to be a third world country. The biggest shock for me though was the waste – fruit that was discarded for no other reason than appearance. This was around 30% of the harvest; fruit that would be allowed to rot rather than be given away to feed the poor. My new friend explained that giving the fruit away would play havoc with the local market prices, risk jobs and generally cause more trouble than it was worth.

He lamented the waste of the fruit and gave me a startling insight into how their trade in Bananas was/is done. Grupo Agricoli (the trading co-operative of which my friend is a major partner) sold their bananas at $4.00 for a 25kg box to one of the major wholesalers that have a stake in the European market. This wholesaler then ships the bananas at a cost of $2.00 per box to say, the UK where they are sold to a supermarket chain for $16.00 a box. Hardly Fair Trade.

Even allowing another $2 a box for admin their profits are staggering. My friend has tried to deal directly with the supermarkets, but such is the power of the wholesalers that the supermarkets will not deal with him, only with a select few distributors. He told me something that made me realize just how disgusting this whole system is and it went something like this:

“Every day, my company throws away enough fruit to give every child in Africa a banana for breakfast. The Supermarkets pay the middleman $16 a box. If they bought direct from me at $12 a box, I would happily pay to ship the fruit we throw away to any port in Africa to give it to the starving.”

We had this conversation in February 2003. As of now, January 2013, Grupo Agricoli still have to use a middleman to sell bananas to the UK. Major supermarkets in the UK are waking up to the vast difference between the cost of producing their food and the price they pay to the middlemen. Throughout Central and South America the supermarket chains are buying up farms for peanuts to have complete control over production and to ensure greater profits for their shareholders.

Of course the idea my friend had was simple, and would no doubt have been beset with a multitude of difficulties both logistical and political. But imagine you could buy your bananas knowing that your favourite supermarket was saving millions of lives feeding the starving. I can’t help but think that the supermarkets missed a great opportunity with this one both on a human level and as a publicity coup. The Supermarket That Fed a Continent – would we ever have stopped talking about it? Come to think about it, would you want to be seen shopping anywhere else?

It has been estimated that the world has the capability to feed twelve billion souls. We have only seven billion, and yet one billion of those are hungry. What will it take for us all to find the courage to choose to be counted amongst an Association of the Good rather than a Combination of the Bad?




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