Here is a new buzzword for you: localisation. You may have heard it before; if not, you soon will do. Local is the new Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas. Everybody wants to believe in it. It is the opposite of globalisation, and paradoxically, as Patricia Hewitt has said, the more we get of the one, the more we need of the other. Climate change reinforces the point. Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will make us travel less. Planners will shepherd communities into the ways of local sustainability. Shuttling vegetables around the world by airplane will come to seem as much a sin as wearing animal fur. Fresh, local food won’t just be advocated by the health professionals and Jamie Olivers, wanting to see a nation of fatties get in shape?it helps save the planet. Shoppers have got the message before either the politicians or the big supermarkets. Some of them increasingly want a ‘differentiated product’?code for local?as opposed to a tasteless, bog standard one.
But try finding it on the supermarket shelf. The farmed landscape of the Isle of Thanet in Kent could be described as one big cabbage field. None of those cabbages seems to find its way into the local Waitrose, which prefers to offer cabbages from Spain. One does not have to be a Green zealot to think that the system has got out of kilter. Defra has, at last, woken up to the hidden cost that food miles in the UK ?all those supermarket lorries pounding up and down the motorways?impose on the nation. A recent report put it at £9 billion (half of it being road congestion?think of that the next time you are stuck in a traffic jam). They want to see that figure reduced by 20% by 2012. The Competition Commission’s inquiry into the grocery industry, now taking place, may have something about it, too. The big five supermarkets have crushed most local shops. Without small outlets, fledgling businesses cannot develop innovative food products.
Even the supermarkets recognise that there is a problem. They will all say they have programmes to do something about it. Asda, for example, is making an effort to give branches more freedom to buy locally. It may be the start of something big. It may, alternatively, be lip service that is paid to what the supermarket bosses hope is a passing fashion. Waitrose and Marks & Spencer do better because their reputations are not staked exclusively on selling at the cheapest price. For Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda, it is. They have extremely efficient distribution systems. Individual stores keep the minimum of stock on the premises: shelves are replenished on the Just In Time principle, whereby a fresh delivery from a far-away depot arrives, ideally, the moment before the last item is sold. (Hence the panic when fuel protesters prevented lorries from resupplying the stores in 2000.) All Tesco’s meat is slaughtered in a specially dedicated abattoir in Cornwall.
There is a strong suspicion that some products which are locally
branded still have to make long journeys before reaching local shelves. Earlier this year, Tesco was forced to withdraw advertising of a ‘local’ product that had travelled 175 miles. Will the supermarkets voluntarily reconstruct their centralised and yet unsustainable distribution systems to offer genuinely local food? Only when bacon has wings.
It is a case of what economists call market failure. So let us restructure the market. Make supermarkets pay for the hidden costs of all those lorries and long-distance freight planes. Suddenly, their systems will not look so ideal. Local food networks, such as Survive, must be protected by controlling supermarket growth. At present, only a miserable 2% of the food in supermarkets is local. Our Manifesto for the Countryside, published earlier this year, set them a target of 10%. We call on Defra and the Competition Commission to support it.