The Observer view on the power of the big four supermarkets

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Food production and retail needs to be more closely monitored. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

In the 1840s, the Rochdale Pioneers set up their own shops to provide honest food at fair prices at a time when people had little money and bread was often bulked out with chalk, milk diluted with water and tea had ingredients not related in any way to tea leaves. Today, standards are much improved. The supermarket, the invention of the 1960s, provides huge choice at relatively cheap prices for consumers who are increasingly pushed for time and money.

Now, four companies – Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons – dominate 75% of the market, although the German discounters Aldi and Lidl, offering far fewer products, competitive prices and stripped-down shops, are rising fast. While the price at the checkout is attractive, it fails to factor in the hidden cost to our health, the environment, to animal welfare, farming and the countryside. Furthermore, certain aspects of government policy, such as the intensive production of wheat, are exhausting the soil.

The four have enormous power. They can dictate the size of an apple grown 6,000 miles away. A change in the price they are prepared to pay can make or break farmers. A thousand dairy farms have closed in three years, beaten by the supermarket price of milk. The demand for “seasonal” produce all year round has had an impact on Britain’s self-sufficiency. It has declined over 30 years from 78% to 60% – and the population is predicted to rise to 75m in 20 years.

The good news is that consumers have clout – if they choose to wield it. Learning how to use it should begin at school. Children, as campaigners such as Jamie Oliver have long argued, need to know more about what honest food is and why it matters. Labelling has to be tougher. “Permanently housed” on beef products tells us the cows have been kept indoors for their lifetime. We need tougher monitoring and policing of animal welfare, food fraud and the treatment of farmers and suppliers by supermarkets.

We need a healthier food chain, offering greater transparency and credible claims of “local” and “farm-fresh”. Monitoring has been weakened by austerity and prosecutions are rare. The horsemeat scandal three years ago failed to shake up the system. It shouldn’t require another before we begin to see real change that can begin with us, the customer.