Supermarket Business Model Expands Globally

Steve Inskeep speaks to author Raj Patel about his latest article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled "Five Things You Don't Know About Supermarkets."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And we're going to hear now from a man who has been looking into profits at supermarkets.

Raj Patel writes about them in the latest Foreign Policy magazine. What started as an American idea of one-stop shopping is now a global business model that influences where our food comes from, what's in it and how we eat it. Raj Patel argues that the supermarket offers you less choice than it seems. Everything is designed to make sure that you maximize supermarket profits - from the positioning of the items in the store to the choice of ingredients in processed food.

Mr. RAJ PATEL (Author, "Five Things You Don't Know About Supermarkets"): Soy is one of these ingredients that actually demonstrates quite well how the supermarket system works and how industrial agriculture works. Soy is one of these ingredients that's in almost everything that we buy from the fast food industry and also in the majority of things that are processed and packaged in the United States. What makes soy very compatible with the way supermarkets manipulate our choices, that it is the sort of versatile industrial ingredient that allows longer shelf life. It can be produced in high quantities and allows processed food to stay on the shelves longer, for example.

If people wanted to demand more sustainable local food, supermarkets have tried to some extent to adapt to that.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PATEL: And you find now supermarkets with farmers markets inside them.

INSKEEP: So supermarkets are plentiful but it's not necessarily a free market in there, as you might get the impression when you first walk in the door. But at least people who have a supermarket nearby, and if they've got a job, they can eat. Are supermarkets also controlling who really has access to their foods?

Mr. PATEL: There's an irony here in that the only thing worse than having a supermarket in your area is not having a supermarket in your area. For many people, particularly in the United States, we've seen a sort of red-lining, where poor communities and people of color don't have the same kind of access to fresh fruits and vegetables because supermarkets just aren't there. That seems like sort of an awful Catch-22, where if you are dependent on supermarkets to access fresh fruits and vegetables and you don't have them in your area, then in fact what you're wishing is for an entity to come in and destroy local businesses.

But what you're seeing in other parts of the world, and also in the U.S., is a sort of emergence not just of farmers markets but also of local kind of open source logistics empires, where farmers are connected to consumers through a web of things like community supported agriculture. And so that's starting to become a way in which communities are overcoming the red-lining that has prevented them from accessing fresh fruits and vegetables that supermarkets have sort of dangled in front of them but then denied them.

INSKEEP: You know, I love the farmers market that my neighbor has organized in my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., but some people will look at that and wonder how you would be 300-plus million people with a system like that.

Mr. PATEL: This is a criticism that the farmers markets get a lot - that it's just not sustainable and, you know, this doesn't work to scale. There was a very interesting report recently looking at how we will feed the world in 2050, when there are nine billion people. We won't have the kinds of cheap fossil fuel that supermarkets' logistical empires depend on. But if we don't have that cheap fossil fuel and we don't have the cheap water, how will we feed the world in 2050? And it turns out that we will need food that is much more urban - food being grown much seasonally. That does involve a kind of seismic shift in the way that we grow and consume food. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. I mean having industrially produced food - food that is rich in salt and fat and sugar - isn't necessarily doing us any favors. Local food is not only going to be sustainable, but it's going to be the only way that we can feed the world.

INSKEEP: Raj Patel is the author of "The Value of Nothing" and also an article on supermarkets in Foreign Policy magazine.

Thanks very much.

Mr. PATEL: Thank you, Steve.

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