Convenient solutions, inconvenient truths – Why supermarkets will not drive food system transformation

Supermarkets play an important role in industrialized food systems, which is why many in academia, politics, industry, and civil society view them as key players in transforming the food system toward greater sustainability. We analyse narratives and proposed solutions in this context, as well as the role of supermarkets in Germany, home to some of the largest retailers worldwide. We show that many actors in the German food system, including supermarkets themselves, perceive the structural problems of overproduction and dysfunctional markets as major obstacles to achieving food system transformation. Despite this, they tend to propose solutions focused on optimization and efficiency in supermarket logistics and retail management or greater consumer awareness. These solutions show little transformative potential. Regarding the structural problem of dysfunctional markets, supermarkets are perceived to be in a quandary due to the drive for profits, competitive markets, and consumer demand. Thus, supermarkets are not likely to drive a transformation of the food system. However, a broadly shared understanding of the core problems of overproduction and dysfunctional markets presents an opportunity for ‘discourse coalitions’ to push for more systemic solutions. The findings may enhance food system stakeholders' understanding of the need for more holistic approaches to addressing sustainability.