“Why don’t we have a campaign to break up Tesco?” This was the suggestion of the presenter of The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, speaking at the Westminster Catholic Archdiocese Justice and Peace Annual Day on 16 October.
At an event titled, ‘How does our weekly food shop affect the planet’ food journalist Sheila Dillon deplored supermarket power over food supply, particularly Tesco’s control of 38 per cent of the UK food market. “This is way above what the Monopoly Commission says is a monopoly” she pointed out “and supermarkets – particularly Tesco - are now far too powerful”. She deplored the poor quality of much cheap and processed food, and the low wages of supermarket employees, describing the current food model as being “very destructive in stopping people from eating better”. She also felt that the UK government has consistently failed to control supermarkets, putting the interests of “Tesco and their chums” ahead of consumers.
“This is why I am now interested in alternatives,” she said, “such as farmers’ markets, box schemes and the Food for Life programme for schools”. The Food Programme, which has two million listeners, looks at the world through food and she welcomed a Church event which explored how we can eat for our own health and for the global common good. Sheila described how she rejected the Catholic Church she had been brought up in, embracing “Dawkins-like atheism” for several decades, but food issues led her back to organised religion. “Seeing the values of people of faith brought me back to faith, but these days in the Anglican church,” she said.
The Westminster Day attracted around 100 participants took its focus on food from July’s annual conference of the National Justice and Peace Network, ‘Our Daily Bread – Food Security, People and Planet’. Another speaker, Christine Allen of Progressio, called for more support for small-scale food production and gave the example of Malawi, where government support for organic agriculture has led to more emphasis on composting systems than imported fertilisers and raised farmer’s incomes. She highlighted a recent Progressio report showing how Asparagus being supplied to UK supermarkets from Peru was actually drawing too heavily on the water supply of local Peruvian communities, threatening their own food production.
This justice issue of ‘virtual water’ was picked by eco-theologian Edward Echlin, himself an organic food grower. He pointed out that the UK is the sixth highest importer in the world of ‘virtual water’. Themes from his latest book, Climate and Christ were touched on as he called for ‘prophetic alternative’ lifestyles inspired by Christ, particularly sourcing food as close to home as possible and caring for the earth. Edward was concerned that so many Christians seem obsessed with “inner journey” spiritualities and suggested that the churches have “a priceless contribution” to offer to spirituality around justice, peace and care for the earth.
The day was held at the West Green parish of St. John Vianney whose parish priest, Fr Joe Ryan, also chairs the Westminster Justice and Peace Commission. He grows fruit and vegetables in the parish garden and pushes for more parishes in the archdiocese to join the 74 who currently embrace fairtrade.