Supermarkets and convenience stores: the unflinching plastic polluters

by GRAIN | 1 Mar 2019
Supermarket watch Asia bulletin, issue 13, February 2019

Editorial: Supermarkets and convenience stores: the unflinching plastic polluters

In the past few years, the growing problem of plastic pollution has reached a tipping point in public awareness. China and the United States stand as the top plastic waste generators in the world. But poor waste management has put Asia in the spotlight of the global fight against plastic pollution. Inadequate waste disposal in open and uncontrolled landfills has led China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam to dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined.

The leading source of plastic pollution is packaging, accounting for over a third of global plastic production. According to Our World in Data, in 2015, plastic waste from packaging reached 140 million tonnes. And a big chunk of this plastic packaging is used for food -- as much as 40% according to some estimates.

Several countries in Asia have taken actions to try and reduce plastic waste in the food system by limiting the use of plastic bags in retail stores. In 2008, China instituted a ban on all thin plastic bags and required retailers to charge a tax on thicker bags. Over the past 15 years, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia have all either banned plastic bags in retail or required supermarkets to charge shoppers for them. Hong Kong even imposed a levy that requires all retailers, from street hawkers to bigger stores, to charge customers for plastic bags. But these measures have not reduced the amount of plastic waste generated by the industrial food system, which continues to grow at a rapid rate.

The problem is that most of the food’s plastic packaging does not occur at the check-out counter. Today, nearly everything sold in a supermarket comes in disposable plastic packaging, with even fresh fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic. A survey of the top 10 UK-based supermarkets by Greenpeace from 2017 to 2018 revealed that these supermarkets, combined with their supply chain, produce 1.1 billion single-use plastic bags and 1.2 billion plastic produce bags for fruit and vegetables. But, perhaps more importantly, supermarket shelves are more and more heavily stocked with processed foods using single-use plastic packaging.

The increasing consumption of processed foods is a leading cause of plastic waste growth. A recent Greenpeace study of consumer goods companies also found that processed food and soft drink companies like Danone, Nestlé and Coca-Cola are the world's worst plastic polluters.

All of this plastic packaging waste does little, if anything, to reduce food waste. In fact, studiesshow that the global growth in plastic packaging of foods has coincided with an increase in food waste.

Plastic pollution is also harmful for the climate, since food processing and packaging account for 8 to 10 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions coming from the global food system. Much of the food system's plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions can be eliminated if food production and distribution is reoriented towards local markets and fresh foods, and away from processed foods. But achieving this is probably the toughest fight, as corporations and governments are deeply committed to expanding the trade in food.

Other articles in this bulletin describe the significant role of farmers’ markets in communities in Australia and Indonesia, from building local economies that are inclusive of women in the fresh market economy, to creating collective spaces for increased understanding between farmers and consumers.


New opportunities and spaces for collectivism in rural-urban fringe through farmers’ market

I believe we are in the midst of a significant shift within the small-scale farming sector looking through the lens of young farmers movement. Though my experience is only reflective of the observations in Australia and global West, the rural-urban interface is fertile ground for many of the new social and political constructs of the food movement. 

There are many opportunities to develop and explore new spaces for collectivism and connection between ‘neo-peasantry’ and the emergence of more educated and food-literate consumers within the growing urban populations. There are many facets of these relationships which have clear value to explore in order to discover perhaps new approaches for food movements and food sovereignty.   

The rural-urban fringe is under enormous pressure as cities continue to expand and take over traditional farm lands, paving some of our more fertile soils. Meanwhile we also see increased land-use conflicts as urbanites buy into rural areas; peri-urban farmland has quickly become a valued commodity and rural areas within population belts are going through rapid gentrification. Peri-urban land becomes more accessible and valuable with the development of digital economies and online professions allowing individuals to maintain urban professions within a rural lifestyle setting.

How the land can be managed and made available for food production needs to be a key feature in planning for food security and successful local food economies. There is an emerging new generation of farmers moving into this space of small-scale farming which has led to big shifts in the pathways for new young farmers. The gradual decline in the family farm succession in rural areas is in many ways being replaced by increased activity of local food economies by first generation farmers coming from urban and professional backgrounds. 

These new generation of farmers typically come with strong associations to environmental and social ethics and seek peri-urban farmland opportunities which provide proximity to services and also direct market access. Bringing a new political discourse to small-scale farming, framed by ideas and values for food justice, anti-establishment sentiments, and enthusiasm in solidarity economies and desire to embed themselves deeply within landscapes and social ecologies.  Here lies my hope in building a more solid base for the development of the food sovereignty movement in Australia.

New generation farmers are quick to recognise not only the social and environmental challenges that the food system is now facing, but also the market advantages of the rapidly growing organic food sector, where they are able to use a wide range of skills as digital natives to communicate their farm journey and provide platforms to improving consumers’ food literacy.

Farmers’ markets have been to date a successful platform to connect farmers to eaters. They have provided the basic building blocks for new modes of direct distribution and offer a potent potential for reimagining short value chains and local food economies. 

However, they are also plagued with a range of issues and perceptions including cultures of protectionism and elitism. The Community-supported agriculture (CSA) movement builds even closer relationships between farmers and consumers, and brings a range of additional dimensions to the food interface between rural and urban communities. Yet, while the structures of local food economies remain as pursuits of individual profit, there is little hope for broader systemic change.  

Farmers’ markets also need to consider adapting and developing their consumer interaction models, to be able to engage with a broader consumer base and relent a dependence on consumers making time to come to the markets.

In a fast-paced world, with time-poor consumers seeking an ethical yet convenient shopping experience, farmers’ markets would do well to improve and offer a broader range of services such as home delivery, access to ethical consumer goods and staples through aligning with food cooperatives and buying groups.

What was old has become new again. Shifts towards smaller-scale production, agroecologies and diversity are however facing new challenges. Localised food models now need to develop within boundaries set by land accessibility and affordability issues, an entirely new bureaucratic landscape with a wide range of constraints on production, housing, land use and regulations and of course the new competition from the industrial food system; its power in policy, production and new moves to co-opt and personify the areas traditionally occupied by the food movement.

These are turbulent waters and it is fascinating to me to make observations in Australia and reflect how issues like food access, affordability and distribution are reflected in food systems around the world. Having had the opportunity to meet with a number of young farmers dealing with all of these issues and describing all these common values, I feel confident that the bridges that we must form and the obstacles that we must overcome are not regionally unique. 

Globally, food systems are under enormous pressure to reform and the very act of farming seems to also be in a state of flux. There are trends demonstrating a serious lack in younger farmers moving into this profession for a range of social and economic reasons, with digital and robotic technologies set to have a huge impact on food production and new technologies, including blockchain, set to rapidly redefine how we chose, find, and access our food. The international food sovereignty movement must seek a strong common language looking into changes in rural-urban fringe and its challenges to embed in the actions and activities of new food economies across the globe.

Article by Joel Orchard ([email protected])
Northern Rivers Young Farmers Alliance, Australia
A shorter version of this article was published in Nyéléni newsletter, in December 2018.

Women’s role in traditional markets faces the challenge of modern retail  

In Indonesia, traditional markets are said to have existed since the Kutai Kertanegara kingdom in the fifth century. These markets saw their origins in the bartering system of everyday goods established by local people with Chinese sailors. Since then, traditional markets have been key in advancing the people's economy, standing as miniatures of the social, cultural and political life of local communities. Women play a significant role in the development of traditional markets and occupy central roles in their structures – from buyers to sellers, to producers who supply goods to the market.

Stamford Raffles documented this in his famous book “History of Java”. He described how, in the Javanese culture, only women went to and did activities in the market. According to Raffles, men had weaker capacity in financial management, therefore it was women who played the role of regulating household expenditure. In another book, “Southeast Asia in Trade Time 1450-1680”, Anthony Reid also wrote about the role of women in traditional markets. He quoted a commander of the Portuguese fleet who described how women in commerce in the Maluku islands acted as sellers and buyers, and developed a bargaining culture in the early days of colonialism in Indonesia.

That role has practically remained unchanged until now. Today, women have an even greater control over the sustainability of traditional markets. They determine the price, the type of goods that are sold, to where the goods will be distributed, and much more. Although there are no definite figures, there is a majority of women in traditional markets. From the lowest to the highest, women are present in all layers of the market structure. There are even women producers who market their products to the market sellers.

This is in contrast with men, who are less present in traditional markets and act more as labour providers.

It is easy to understand why the proliferation of modern markets constitutes a threat particularly for women as well as for the people’s economy in general. For example, human interactions are minimal or completely absent in modern markets. This is contributing to uprooting communities from their cultural traditions and replacing those with an individualistic lifestyle which is alien to the local culture. Historically, the culture of Indonesia has been predominantly oral. Local knowledge and traditions have been passed through word of mouth and different kinds of human interactions often occurring in traditional markets. And again, the role of women cannot be underestimated in this process. In fact, should also be protected. Modern markets are contributing to the wiping out of local knowledge and traditions, including traditions that depart from women's experience like local food production and traditional medicines.

In the midst of globalization and consumerism, modern markets have certainly gained a central place so their development is prioritized. Evidence shows the swift growth of modern markets. According to a study by AC Nielsen in 2007, the number of traditional markets in Indonesia shrunk by 8% per year, while modern markets grew by 31.4%.

Furthermore, 3,800 traditional markets in various regions of Indonesia were shut down in the 2007-2011 period (Ministry of Trade, 2011). They were converted into modern markets which, in turn, were monopolized by giant retail companies and other companies. Not to mention that traditional markets are also beginning to be abandoned because of the massive presence of minimarkets or convenience stores that are closer to consumers and spread pervasively. Looking at the trends in modern market development, the number of traditional markets going out of business is likely to escalate in 2019.

The fight for space between traditional and modern markets is something unavoidable. The government is not unaware of the importance of traditional markets and their key role as economic powerhouses. However, it does not show its support often, despite it holds the political power to do so. The livelihoods of tens of millions of people, including women, depend on traditional markets. Women, who also play the critical role of family caretaking, are the most vulnerable to poverty if they lose their livelihood.

To tackle this problem, serious affirmative steps by the government are needed. Regulating and limiting the construction of modern markets must begin immediately. In addition, the government needs to improve the conditions in which traditional markets exist and help them attract consumers. These efforts will only be successful if they actively involve all actors in traditional markets, including women.

Article by Suci Fitriah Tanjung ([email protected])
Solidaritas Perempuan, Indonesia

Supermarket watch Asia is a quarterly email bulletin for social movements about developments in food retail and distribution in Asia produced by GRAIN. Click here to view the full issue and subscribe.
Author: GRAIN
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