[Homestead] Can farmers' markets save small food producers?
genegerue at ruralize.com
Tue Dec 28 07:39:48 EST 2004
Supermarket Giants Crush Central American Farmers
By CELIA W. DUGGER
Published: December 28, 2004
PALENCIA, Guatemala - Mario Chinchilla, his face shaded by a battered straw
hat, worriedly surveyed his field of sickly tomatoes. His hands and jeans
were caked with dirt, but no amount of labor would ever turn his puny crop
into the plump, unblemished produce the country's main supermarket chain
displays in its big stores.
For a time, the farmer's cooperative he heads managed to sell vegetables to
the chain, part owned by the giant Dutch multinational, Ahold, which counts
Stop & Shop among its assets. But the co-op's members lacked the expertise,
as well as the money to invest in the modern greenhouses, drip irrigation
and pest control that would have helped them meet supermarket specifications.
Squatting next to his field, Mr. Chinchilla's rugged face was a portrait of
defeat. "They wanted consistent supply without ups and downs," he said,
scratching the soil with a stick. "We didn't have the capacity to do it."
Across Latin America, supermarket chains partly or wholly owned by global
corporate goliaths like Ahold, Wal-Mart and Carrefour have revolutionized
food distribution in the short span of a decade and have now begun to
transform food growing, too.
The megastores are popular with customers for their lower prices, choice
and convenience. But their sudden appearance has brought unanticipated and
daunting challenges to millions of struggling, small farmers.
The stark danger is that increasing numbers of them will go bust and join
streams of desperate migrants to America and the urban slums of their own
countries. Their declining fortunes, economists and agronomists fear, could
worsen inequality in a region where the gap between rich and poor already
yawns cavernously and the concentration of land in the hands of an elite
has historically fueled cycles of rebellion and violent repression.
"It's like being on a train with a glass on a table and it's about to fall
off and break," said Prof. Thomas Reardon, an agricultural economist at
Michigan State University. "Everyone sees the glass on the table - but do
they see it shaking? Do they see the edge? The edge is the structural
changes in the market."
In the 1990's supermarkets went from controlling 10 to 20 percent of the
market in the region to dominating it, a transition that took 50 years in
the United States, according to researchers at Michigan State and the Latin
American Center for Rural Development in Santiago, Chile.
Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico are furthest along. While
the changes have happened more slowly in poorer, more rural Central
American countries, they have begun to quicken here, too. In Guatemala, the
number of supermarkets has more than doubled in the past decade, as the
share of food they retail has reached 35 percent.
The hope that small farmers would benefit by banding together in
business-minded associations has not been borne out. Some like Aj Ticonel,
in the city of Chimaltenango, have succeeded. But the evidence suggests
that the failure of Mr. Chinchilla's co-op is the more common fate.
Its feeble attempts to sell to major supermarkets illustrate how the odds
are stacked against small farmers, as well as the uneven effects of
globalization itself. Many small farmers in the region are getting left
behind, while medium-sized and larger growers, with more money and
marketing savvy, are far more likely to benefit.
Most fruits and vegetables in the region are still sold in small shops and
open-air markets, but the value of supermarket purchases from farmers has
soared and now surpasses that of produce exports by two and half times,
The bottom line: supermarkets and their privately set standards already
loom larger for many farmers than the rules of the World Trade Organization.
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