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Indie Culture

a shopping street

When my brother Gregory and I opened Ceres Grain Shop in 1969′s Portobello Road, people who were into ‘brown rice and lentils’ at last had a one-stop shop dedicated to their requirements. For the first time in Britain, it was now possible to purchase rare and exotic foods like tahini, tamari, brown rice, whole grains, aduki beans, pulses, miso, seeds and sea vegetables as well as organic fruit, vegetables and bread.

Ceres thrived. By the mid-1970s we were wholesaling via Harmony Foods to over 350 similar shops, all committed to wholefood and organic ideals. This handful of small independent retailers provided the focus for the rapidly growing number of people committed to those same ideals. Their in-store message boards were the threads that wove this interest group into a community.

Once people got the connection between soil health, plant health, animal health, human health and the health of the planet, they wanted to become part of the solution. Thanks to this new wholefood and organic market, they could ‘walk the talk’ of sustainability. The independent wholefood retailer was and is situated at the heart of this network for positive change.

An example of the way this network functions can be seen in the pioneering action against Monsanto’s GM Roundup Ready soybeans. In 1997, wholefood shops disseminated tens of thousands of A4 leaflets that intelligently set out the threats and risks posed by the introduction of GM soy. With soy-based products such an important part of their customers’ diets, retailers were highly sensitive to this issue. Rainbow Wholefoods’ Richard Austin contacted me to help stop this threat. Then Green City Wholefoods provided a desk and telephone for one of their staff, Lindsay Keenan, to campaign part time. Along with other wholefood wholesalers, backed by retailers, we formed Genetic Food Alert (GFA).

Lindsay wrote to all suppliers to the trade asking if their products were GM-free. It was 1997, most could still say they were ‘clean’. The noose tightened: GFA asked for documentation. Then GFA set a deadline: no proof that you’re GM-free and we take you off our price lists. Manufacturers moved heaven and earth to become GM-free, putting pressure on raw material and ingredient suppliers to analyse and segregate.

By 1998 consumer concern about genetic engineering was broadening and the supermarkets came under pressure to provide GM-free guarantees. Thanks to the wholefood trade’s prior efforts, the manufacturers – and therefore the supermarkets – could promise to be GM-free as well. Monsanto’s dreams of market domination hit the wall. The presumptions of inevitability with which GM had been promoted backfired. The drug and agrichemical companies involved in GM had become so used to manipulating government’s agricultural policy that they had completely lost touch with real world of market forces. How could they possibly have predicted that a tiny group of resolute British wholefood retailers, educating their customers and serving their interests, would play such a key role in providing an escape route for Europe from GM contamination of our food?

We all owe a debt of thanks to the independent wholefood trade. Without them, innovative manufacturers of natural and organic food products would never have been able to get off the ground. Yoghurt, muesli, wholemeal bread, brown rice, vegetarian burgers, ‘no added sugar’ products, non-hydrogenated margarine, organic chocolate, eco cleaning products, natural toiletries and tofu are just a few of the innovations that built their primary market in wholefood shops. These things have all helped effect real change in the health of consumers and the environment.

As the organic movement and market grows in size and sophistication, the role of the independent retailer will be as crucial as ever in creating a sustainable, just and healthy world.

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