Much has been said by me on the subject of Jimmy Doherty and his morbid fascination with our mechanised global food system, but there is just one more little niggle that I feel compelled to get off my chest, and that is the question of customer choice.
Standing in the middle of a vast field of dwarf beans in Kenya, Jimmy was discussing the crop with the grower. He asked the grower what makes a good bean, a leading question if ever the was one.
“This bean is bent, and I have been told by consumers that they don’t like this,” responded the grower obligingly.
Jimmy asked the grower what happens to such beans, and he was told that they are simply thrown away or fed to animals.
“Bent beans are thrown way,” said Jimmy disapprovingly, “Because we consumers like our beans straight.”
Well, sorry Jimmy, but not so.
It’s all very well Jimmy tut-tutting and wagging his finger at the consumer, but it’s not quite as simple as that. It is the supermarkets that have driven the demand for straight beans (or straight cucumbers, straight carrots, courgettes, etc, etc etc . . .). Supermarkets are obsessed with standardisation and uniformity, because it suits their packaging and display requirements. At the same time, they have developed their own rules regarding what is or is not a ‘perfect’ fruit or vegetable, and they have used these standards to compete with each other during the unprecedented growth spurt they have put on in the last thirty years.
In that time, the subliminal supermarket message has been, “If you want the very best of fruit and vegetables, this is the place to buy it, not some seedy old greengrocer in town.” Striving to meet criteria of perfection that are nothing short of fantasy in some cases (such as computer-controlled colour balancing of apple skins), and coupling that with touchy-feely display facilities that allow customers to handle the produce directly, has led to the creation of a bizarre world in which the products of nature have all been channelled into an impossibly narrow spectrum of uniformity. This has been going on for so long now that there are probably at least two generations of ‘consumers’ who have absolutely no idea that fruit and vegetables actually vary in size, colour and shape.
So now, as a result of slick marketing and promotional inculcation, the ‘consumer,’ (more appropriately called the ‘docile, compliant, indoctrinated supermarket shopper’), has come to believe all of the insanely unreal standards of perfection imposed by the supermarket culture. This has played right into the hands of the supermarkets, a serendipitous bonus of Big Business’ original conjuring trick. Now they can say without fear of contradiction that they are merely bowing to consumer demand. If only the consumers could see how they are manipulated. Through the natural belligerence inherent in all of us, consumers might then turn round and say, “We’re not going to be told by Big Business what shape of vegetable or what colour of apple we are going to buy.” If this were to happen, there might be some kind of cultural revolution and a clear understanding that the Consumer really is King. Until then, however, the likes of Jimmy Doherty and the bean growers of Kenya will be able to continue to claim with impunity, “The consumers don’t like beans that are not straight.”