Supermarket ecology


I have an amensal relationship with my local supermarket—I give it money, it gives me rotten fruit and rancid yoghurt in return.

My fridge was low on fresh food the other day, so I headed off to my neighbourhood Superagora megabyssiae. Mine’s about 10 minutes up the road. It lies in wait like a huge concrete anglerfish, luring me into its automatic-opening jaws with its promises of “fresh food” and “everyday low prices”. I stood in the ‘fresh’ produce section eyeing soft apples, wilting lettuce and green potatoes with distaste. I even found a mouldy capsicum. And don’t get me started on the dairy cabinet.

Supermarkets are ‘ecosystem engineers’, and not in a good way. They’re kind of the abiotic equivalent of Salvinia. They control resource supply in a local ‘ecosystem’ through product/brand diversity (or lack thereof) and pricing. When they first move into the neighbourhood it’s all good—the small-time alternatives keep afloat and everyone lives in mutual harmony. Then one day, boom! The fruit shop and the corner store have shut down, suffocated by competition, and all you have to choose from are the linoed aisles of your friendly neighbourhood Superagora.

The dreaded salvinia.  If you're not familiar with this weed, that nice, smooth lawn is actually a water body.
The dreaded Salvinia. If you’re not familiar with this weed, that nice, smooth lawn is actually a water body. (Picture: http://www.anbg.gov.au/weeds)

You’d think, at this point, the Superagora, like any sensible amensalist, would set about keeping the community that supports it healthy. So why are the most expensive products the things that are best for your health? (Even though the health-giving days of Superagora produce is long gone by the time it makes it to the shelf.) Why make us feel guilty by bombarding us with advertising about living healthy and eating fruit and vegies (2+5, 2+5, 2+5…I could count them in my sleep), whole foods, slow food, wholegrains, organic, gluten free, low-fat, no sugar etc. and then make everything except chocolate bars and 2-minute noodles too darn expensive for anyone earning less than $50K a year?  (That’s just for a single person–if you want to feed a family with healthy food, you need to be nothing short of a millionaire).

How is it logistically more sensible for a supermarket to buy potatoes from one state, fly them to the other side of the country, and then truck them back to their state of origin to put on the shelves? Why don’t the supermarket branches in each state just buy their own local produce?

Isn’t that the whole point of “farm gate price”? Buy local = lower this carbon footprint nonsense = keep the farmers on their land = keep the community healthy = lighten the load on the over-worked health system. No? Maybe I’m living in a dreamland…

© Manu Saunders 2009