Globally, enough food is produced to feed the entirety of our ever-growing population, however, 20% of people living in developing countries still experience hunger and food insecurity, meaning they do not have sufficient access to safe, nourishing food that they wish to eat in order to sustain an active and healthy life. Issues relating to food insecurity in the developing world are caused by various factors, yet, scarily, our habits as consumers could even be argued to add to this problem.
A need for the ‘exotic’
In the past two decades there has been a huge increase in the amount of food stocked in British supermarkets which have been grown overseas, often in developing ex-British colonies, and shipped internationally to reach our shopping trollies. Supermarkets supply these products due to elevated demand as a result of an increased awareness of our health within developed countries, such as England. Therefore, as consumers, we expect to see our favourite ‘exotic’ produce in the supermarkets all year round rather than just purchasing seasonal local food.
Zimbabwe and Tesco: Does every little really help?
Having grown up next to a farm in Zimbabwe which supplied mangetout for Tesco, I felt it would be interesting to see how Tesco’s interactions within this process in Zimbabwe impacts those who work on the farms which supply Tesco more generally, as well as the specific effects it has upon their food security.
From the start of its trade with the UK, Zimbabwe, a former British colony, provided crops such as baby corn and mangetout peas, which can’t be grown in our cold British climates, in order for UK supermarkets such as Tesco to be able to supply the British consumer with ‘exotic’ produce during the winter months.
The pre-packed vegetables seen in Tesco supermarkets come with an ‘ethical’ seal of approval, having been produced under certain environmental and social welfare standards. The concept behind this ethical seal of approval is done in an attempt to ‘improve the lives of poor working people around the world’. For us, as consumers, this ‘ethical’ stamp is seen positively; we like to know that what we are buying has been sourced from people who have been respected in the process. However this also meant that the production of Tesco’s mangetout had to be better governed than previously. Therefore, in order for Tesco to ensure that environmental and social welfare standards were met, it became increasingly, perhaps overly, involved in monitoring the control of the suppliers and their produce, which, in turn had several negative outcomes for the Zimbabwean workers.
This could be blamed by a spread of neoliberalism whereby government control has been slowly removed, therefore opening up markets to private companies, enabling Tesco to have greater control in the process of mangetout production within Zimbabwe.
Tesco’s harsh control within Zimbabwe
As a result of Tesco’s increased control, people working on farms supplying mangetout for Tesco experienced precarious livelihoods, strict surveillance and increasing pressure within the job, with the practice even being compared to the colonial period that Zimbabwe experienced. The monitoring therefore provided an unsettling environment contradictory to that promised by Tesco who began the control to ensure the social welfare standards were upheld in the first place.
An example of this control was widely broadcasted showing Tesco to make the majority of the decisions on farms and in packing facilities within Zimbabwe, which it did not own, and therefore was not supposed to do. This control left the workers and suppliers with minimal say within the system, with Tesco also being accused of exploiting its farmworkers in Zimbabwe as a result.
Tesco also extended its control in Zimbabwe through to the way the vegetables look. In turn, this meant that around half the mangetout grown for Tesco in Zimbabwe was unfit for the British consumers. However, rather than being offered to the local population, this mangetout was either provided to farmers for animal feed or simply thrown away. One Evening Standard article even noted that Dharshini David, spokesman for Tesco at the time, assumed that the Zimbabweans would not want the food that Tesco grew in Zimbabwe as it was not traditionally eaten. Therefore, even in periods of record harvests, starvation and food insecurity persisted within Zimbabwe as a result of Tesco’s mass produced food not being consumed within Zimbabwe, as it was grown for the British consumer only. Even though mangetout isn’t a vegetable which is traditionally eaten in Zimbabwe, it does not mean it is not eaten at all. Tesco were therefore denying the local population a chance to access vital food surplus which may have reduced the threat of food insecurity experienced by 16% of the population.
Workers on Tesco’s mangetout farms also only received a small percentage of the final price paid for the mangetout in the supermarkets, mangetout pickers were therefore poorly paid. They were only paid around 1% of the 99p that Tesco sells its 150g packet of mangetout for. Tesco, in comparison, profited almost 50% of this same 99p that the mangetout is sold for. This gives workers poor purchasing power and thus makes it hard for them to buy the food they wish for an ‘active and healthy lifestyle’, therefore adding to the food insecurity they experience.
Therefore, even though Tesco produced a food surplus in a country which desperately needed it, as access to this surplus was denied a chance wasn’t given through this relationship to try and reduce the food insecurity that Zimbabwe experiences. As well, in spite of Tesco creating jobs for the local population, the low pay and lack of profit that growers received provided no leverage for them to escape this food insecurity. Therefore, the choices which we make as consumers, and the decisions this forces supermarkets to make regarding supply and demand, has real, negative impacts upon the food security of those in the developing world.