Monopoly power vs Scottish food: How big money is undermining our most fundamental need

Ben Wray

The food economy in Scotland is dominated by big landowners and supermarket monopolies, David Jamieson finds

LIKE all countries and cultures, Scotland is partly defined by its food. Not just it’s cuisine – the country and urban landscape itself is of course shaped by the need to produce and consume food products.

And like so many other advanced economies the shaping of that environment has fallen into fewer and fewer hands, as monopolisation has transformed marketplaces.

Scotland is a land of monopoly, literally. An understanding of the domination of Scotland’s food market by a few large players begins with the agricultural land.

The Scottish Land Commission’s recent report found 1,125 owners own 70 per cent of Scotland’s rural land. 81 per cent of that land is arable, but only 10 per cent can be used for anything other than rough grazing.

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In this restricted area of farm land there is a “trend of increasing concentration of agricultural landownership” at the expense of small and tenant farms, the Commission has found.

One farmer quoted in its report said: “These large units are mostly well run and efficient but give no thought whatsoever to aspiring new entrants. Greed is the order of the day. “

The report found widespread concern that the growth of larger farms was threatening both tenant farmers, who were often evicted in the bid to merge farmlands, and entrant farmers who struggle to secure the capital to buy large tracts of land now that smaller tracts are being subsumed. These problems are compounded by the growth in the value of land, an 85 per cent rise over the last decade, while total farming income grew by just 15 per cent.

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Large farms, due to their economies of scale, are able to operate at a higher level of efficiency, owners told the commission, and therefore able to extract greater profits from the monopoly sellers of product – the supermarkets.

At the same time, the ever-forward march of housing price inflation and property development to cash in on it, is also exerting a pressure on smaller farms. Farmers told the commission that “land can attract values hundreds of times as much as agricultural land” when sold to developers.

One of the clearest exemplifiers of this trend is an increase in high profile evictions of tenant farmers from large landholdings.

The overall picture therefore is one not just of the monopolisation of agricultural land, pushing out smaller and tenant farmers. It is also one of monopoly feeding monopoly.

An over-bearing financial system dominated by a few huge banks inflating housing prices driving up the value of land. Large farms structured by hyper-centralised land ownership encouraged by low supermarket prices.

A similar pattern is found again and again in Scottish food production. Ownership and market control is heavily concentrated to a small number of major owners or corporate entities. For example, just five rich list families control a third of the Scottish fishing quota. 

Pete Ritchie from Nourish Scotland notes the symbiosis of monopoly interests in the food economy.

“The agriculture industry is owned largely by companies headquartered outside of Scotland. Within the wild fisheries sector it’s really the same as with agriculture and the supermarkets, you have a small number of factors dominating each sector. And a lot of the ownership is outside Scotland.”

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Historically the Scottish food market has been designed to feed population centres in the south of Britain and to Europe. By 2017 the value of Scottish food and drink exports had risen beyond the £6 billion mark.

“The whole way livestock and other products are moved around Scotland is ultimately about its transportation to down south to London and for its movement out the country for export,” Ritchie says.

“Local supply chains started to disintegrate from the end of the second world war, and haven’t really recuperated.”

What is required, he says, is to realign the Scottish food economy towards providing for the needs within Scotland itself.

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Today that internal market is dominated by UK and foreign supermarket giants. Supermarkets own over 98 per cent of the grocery market, with just eight supermarkets controlling 93.5 per cent.

Professor Leigh Sparks, Deputy Principal at the school of retail and marketing at Stirling University tells CommonSpace that the degree of concentration and centralisation in the sector had actually declined in recent years.

He says: “UK wide Tesco represents around 29 per cent of the market, Asda and Sainsbury’s somewhere below that at about 14 per cent, Morrisons in there as well at about 11-12 per cent and then you’ve got the smaller players, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer’s, Co-op.”

“The concentration in the UK and Scotland has actually declined over the last few years, because the market share of Aldi and Lidl is now around about 12 per cent. That’s been the really big change.”

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Of course, this development also owes itself to that partner of monopolisation in the Scottish economy – foreign ownership.

Smaller shops selling locally sourced goods and relying on local supply chains increasingly appeal to those seeking new ethical and healthy consumption habits. Shops like Locavore in Glasgow’s Govanhill offer locally grown groceries and pay higher wages than most supermarkets. The perennial question with outfits like these is whether they can ever compete with the big monopolies, their scale and institutional and political power.

And as Sparks underlines, the biggest push is in the other direction: “The dramatic change is the rise of Aldi and Lidl. That’s what’s caused Tesco’s market share to decline, what’s caused Sainbury’s and Asda to see if they could merge. It has effected the market share of most of the bigger players.”

That attempted merger has made waves in the Scottish food industry.

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The first signs of trouble in the ambitious plan to forge a new behemoth hit the headlines in April 2018 when Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe was caught singing “we’re in the money” before a televised interview to discuss the merger plans.

Since then the giant firms have clashed with the Competition & Markets Authority over their plans, which the state agency fears will reduce choice and increase prices for consumers.

Richie Venton, a Scottish representative on the executive council of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw), tells CommonSpace that the attempt to arrive at a compromise between the corporations and the authority speaks to imbalances of class power in the industry.

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“A huge class division exists within the retail sector between the chief executives and the directors as a whole and low paid retail staff. They are utterly callous and remote when it comes to decisions,” he says.

An example of this “is the sudden announcement of what amounts to a merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda which would involve currently about a third of a million workers.”

“Now the latest figures are that those two companies are volunteering to the CMA that they would meet their concerns about monopolisation by shutting 150 stores. That’s 150 times two or three hundred workers. Just another example of the insecurity workers face in retail.”

Some three million UK employees work in retail, the largest portion of the UK workforce besides NHS workers. The big four supermarkets alone employ nearly one-third of that total between them. They now face major threats in the era of the declining high street.

“These monopolies carve up every corner of the high street, realise they have overstretched and the shrinkage lands on the heads of the workforce. The big growth in jobs in the 80s and 90s is now turning into its opposite and they are slaughtering jobs,” Venton adds.

The Union, he says, is currently organising to resist cuts to thousands of jobs across the sector.

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In the meantime “short hour contracts are a curse in retail. The big four – their minimum guaranteed contract is eight hours a week. Commonly what they rely on is workers being at their beck and call, to come in when its busy and go home when it’s not busy.”

Against these trends, the union has launched its ‘Time for Better Pay’ campaign, demanding a 16 hour minimum week and £10 per hour minimum pay.

But for as long as Scotland remains a land of food monopolies, it will continue to be one where farms, coastal towns, high streets and mass workforces remain precarious. That pronounced monopoly power is as great a democratic deficit as any facing these isles.

Picture: LuckyLife11

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