It’s October 21, which means only one thing in Brogdale, England: it’s Apple Day! Not the Apple of iPad’s, iPhones, and their ilk, but the crunchy, juicy fruit so beloved of this part of the world.
I’ve been alerted to this important day by Carolyn Steel’s fantastic book, Hungry City, which tells the story of how food shapes our lives. She writes about Brogdale in a chapter on ‘supplying the city’. She tells us how Brogdale has 2,300 varieties of apples on display and two trees growing each one, so 4,600 trees in the farm’s orchard. Wow: 2,300 varieties! Seems amazing to someone like me who rushes round the supermarket, glancing at the bags of apples wrapped in plastic bags, choosing one of them, checking briefly for bruises, and heading home. So, yeah, 2,300 varieties. We’d never know it. As Steel notes, ‘…apple varieties are dying out all over the world. There is no place for them, it seems, in the global food economy’ – an economy which hinges on sales in supermarkets which don’t like too many varieties of any fruit or veg (more of a hassle to have them scanned into those self-checkout computers?).
‘Modern city-dwellers’, she points out, ‘demand constant supplies of cheap, predictable food, and agribusiness has evolved to produce just that.’ The result is a food economy driven by concerns about economies of scale: ‘Wheeling your trolley down a supermarket aisle, it might be tempting to think that we have never had a greater choice of things to eat. But that is not quite true. Yes, you can now eat strawberries at Christmas if you really want to; but if you want to choose the variety, forget it. Three quarters of all strawberries sold in the UK today are of just one kind, Elsanta […] Its success lies in its ability to reduce a highly complex process (food production) to an operation so streamlined that its very product (food) is now subservient to it…’
This is a part of the contemporary capitalist economy Alain de Botton seeks to capture in his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. In a chapter which makes an utter mockery of the current fashion of scattering some (fake? manufactured?) soil over the potatoes in supermarkets (see the ridiculous image below taken in my local Super Quinn store), he tells us about a ‘group of twenty-five imposing grey warehouses’ that make up ‘one of the largest and most technologically advanced logistics parks in Europe. Positioned beside three central arteries, the M1, M6 and A5, they are within a four-hour drive of 80 percent of the United Kingdom’s population, and every week, largely at night, they handle a significant share of its supply of building materials, stationery, food, furniture and computers.’
The largest warehouse belongs to a supermarket. Its job is to get food onto shelves quickly and without too much waste. ‘The aisles of an average supermarket contain twenty thousand items, four thousand of which are chilled and need to be replaced every three days, while the other sixteen thousand require restocking within two weeks.’ From the warehouse, then, articulated lorries deliver food to our local supermarkets in a struggle ‘against the challenges of mould and geography’. In one aisle, he writes, it is early December and ‘twelve thousand blood-red strawberries wait in the semi-darkness. They flew in from California yesterday, crossing over the Arctic circle by moonlight […] There is only ninety-six hours’ leeway between the moment the strawberries are picked and the moment they start to cave in to attacks of grey mould.’ Time is of the essence.
This is how we’re getting our food these days. It’s an extraordinary geography, overwhelmingly dominated by a small number of corporate players – from the suppliers of inputs to the processors and retailers – and designed simply to secure profits from food sales. Tony Weis, author of the excellent Global Food Economy, is highly critical of this situation. The ‘pseudo-diverse supermarkets’, he argues, stand at the apex of an environmentally-unsustainable system which locks in global inequalities in access to land and food. The system hinges on preserving the power of its largest corporate entities and on resisting bottom-up efforts to formulate a different type of food economy. Thus, while events such as Apple Day – or the many other alternative geographies of food out there – signify an alternative way of looking at, thinking about, and consuming food, it’s hard not to feel that such attempts at resistance and subversion stand little chance against the juggernaut of a capital- and logistics-intensive food economy. Or am I wrong?