The fruits of poverty
Source Steve Zeltzer
Date 04/03/20/00:24

The fruits of poverty

The wealth of supermarkets is built on monopoly, exploitation and
restriction of choice

George Monbiot
Tuesday March 16, 2004
The Guardian

Every year the list is the same, but every year it still comes as a
shock. Of the 10 richest people on Earth, five of them have the same
surname. It's not Gates, or Murdoch, or Rockefeller, but Walton. They
are the heirs and trustees of the supermarket chain Wal-Mart. And
between them they are worth $100bn.

Considering how the media fawns on the ultra rich, we hear remarkably
little about them. Perhaps this is because their position is rather
embarrassing. The company that enriches them trades on the idea that it
is the friend of the common man and woman, distributing rather than
concentrating wealth.

Over the past 20 years, two world-shaking social transformations have
taken place. The first, the effective collapse of the proletariat as a
political force, has been well documented. The second, the disappearance
of the petty bourgeoisie as an economic force, rather less so. The
near-elimination of the small businesses supplying and running the
retail trade is in some ways as consequential as the withering of
organised labour in heavy industry and the coal mines. The global
monopolisation of the sector has destroyed the livelihoods of tens of
millions of small proprietors and their employees. But, because this
workforce was dispersed, the effects are rather harder to see.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to buy some fruit trees. I travelled to
the world's most unprepossessing centre of biodiversity: Langley, on the
outskirts of Slough. In the first half of the 20th century, most of
London's fruit and vegetables were grown round there. The farms were
supplied by specialist nurseries, which ensured that Britain possessed a
wider variety of temperate fruit trees than any other nation. Two weeks
ago, only one of these nurseries was left. In the 1940s, JC Allgrove's
kept a thousand varieties of apple tree. It is still listed in the
directories as one of Britain's great growers. But I was among its last

Since the owner died two years ago, the business has been run by a
volunteer, Nick Houston. "There are bits of ground here where no one's
been for 20 years," he told me. Recently, scrabbling beneath the ivy
that now covers the orchards, he found an apple he had never seen
before. It was a Baumann's Reinette: the horticultural equivalent of a
Fabergé egg. "But I had no idea which bloody tree it had fallen off."
Somewhere in the nursery there should be two varieties - King Harry and
St Augustine's Orange - that even the national fruit collection doesn't
possess, but he hasn't been able to find them yet. The land is to be
sold. Nick will salvage what he can and run a business of his own, under
the old name, to try to keep the rare breeds growing.

He gave a one-word answer when I asked him what had happened to the
business. "Supermarkets." Today the apples they buy are landing three
miles from JC Allgrove's. Heathrow's first runway was built on
strawberry farms and orchards. From the air, you can still see derelict
greenhouses and the parallel lines on the land where fruit trees once
grew. Richard Cox, the man who bred the world's favourite apple, is
buried beside St Mary's Church in Harmondsworth, which will be flattened
if a third runway is built at Heathrow.

The superstores have used their buying power to force the world's
farmers to compete directly with each other. Yesterday I spoke to a
fruit grower in Gloucestershire, who told me that to stay in the game he
must sometimes sell Coxes for as little as 57p a kilo, less than his
cost of production. The superstores then sell the same apples for
between £1.60 and £1.80. They can buy them for even less from Chile, New
Zealand and South Africa, where labour is cheap and the farms huge. This
would present no threat to the growers here, had the superstores not
used their political power to ensure that fuel costs stay low, and the
docks and airports keep expanding.

These companies are now strolling over the battlefield, dispatching the
last of the wounded. A few days ago, Verdict Research published a report
on the takeover of Britain's cornershops. The big chains have moved into
the suburbs, where they are closing down the competition. "Now smaller
retailers can no longer hide in the neighbourhood," Verdict reports. "A
major shake-out is inevitable."

Wal-Mart, which owns the British chain Asda, is now the biggest company
on Earth. In the last financial year it took $245bn. It is successful
partly because it is one of the most ruthless employers in the western

In the US its sales clerks made an average of $13,861 in 2001, almost
$800 below the federal poverty line for a family of three. It is
reported to have told new employees how to apply for food stamps so that
they don't starve to death. In November, the police found hundreds of
illegal immigrants working as cleaners in its stores. Some of them
claimed that they were obliged to work seven nights a week, without
overtime, insurance or benefits.

By forcing down the prices of the goods they buy, the superstores
encourage even more repressive conditions in the companies that supply
them. A recent study by Oxfam documents the systematic abuse of workers
in the factories and farms that the superstores buy from. The Waltons
are so rich because others are so poor.

Beside this, the destruction of our horticultural diversity looks
trivial. But both are manifestations of the same problem. As the
superstores capture the market, they shut down all our choices: about
where we shop, what we buy, who we work for. This, of course, is what
all monopolies seek to do.

We might have hoped that governments would treat them as such. Indeed,
there was a time when they did. In 1936, a federal anti-trust act was
passed in the United States to protect small shops from the Great
Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company. But governments were braver then.

In Britain, the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission
seem to spend their time devising new excuses. They continue to insist,
for example, that big stores and corner shops are separate markets.
Tesco might sell 25% of all Britain's groceries, but it owns "only" 6%
of the convenience store market, so it should be allowed to expand in
that sector as it pleases. Last month the Office of Fair Trading
admitted that its voluntary code of practice, which is supposed to
protect farmers from the excessive power of the superstores, is not
working. By way of remedy it proposed "more research".

In response, the MPs Andrew George and David Drew are launching an early
day motion in parliament today, calling for a legally binding code of
practice and a supermarket watchdog. But Tony Blair seems to be as
frightened of the superstores as he is of the tabloid press.

Nick couldn't find me any of the rarest varieties. He sold me an Adam's
Pearmain, a Charles Ross, a Sturmer Pippin and a Cornish Aromatic. I
would have bought the names even if the trees weren't attached to them.
If they survive my clumsy handling and produce fruit, I will regard
every apple they produce as a minor act of insurrection.

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