Edible Nation: Foodopoly
In 1963 my dad bought a ramshackle farm with rich but tremely rocky soil in the rural Bull Run Mountains of Virginia, 40 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. Today it is on the verge of suburbia.
My dad, who died in 1991 at the age of 81, would be shocked now to see both his farm and the massive development around it. Thousands of townhouses and new subdivisions have cropped up where once there were fields dotted with cows. This has brought on the big-box stores, including Walmart, and fast-food joints—blights on the once bucolic rural landscape. A major highway, I-66, recently engineered to be either six or eight lanes depending on the location, means we can zip into the nation’s capital during the rare times that commuters are not clogging the road.
Since 1997, my husband has run the farm as a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, feeding 500 families each season with subscription vegetables grown using organic practices. It’s a successful family business that suits my activist husband, who taught high school and college and worked for public interest organizations, but who really prefers the challenge of farming without chemicals. It works financially, because we own the land outright, and because we live near a major metropolitan area where urban and suburban residents are seeking greater authenticity in the food they eat. They want their children to see where food comes from and to learn that chickens enjoy living together in a pasture. We often joke that for most people the CSA is more about having a farm to visit than the vegetables.
My family is also extremely lucky that my dad bought almost worthless land in the 1960s that today is located near a major metropolitan area populated by a largely affluent and educated population. But most farmers, or people aspiring to be farmers, aren’t so lucky. Fortunately, farmers markets and similar venues help capture the excitement and nostalgia for farming, and for a simpler and healthier lifestyle, and they are delightful for the customers and can be profitable for farmers.
But despite my firsthand knowledge of and appreciation for the immense benefits of CSAs and farmers markets, they are only a small part of the fix for our dysfunctional food system. Food hubs, which aggregate and distribute local food, are beneficial for participating farmers and the purchasing food establishment. But, so far, they must be subsidized by nonprofits or local governments because they are not self-sustaining. We must delve deeper into the history of the food system to have the knowledge to fix it.
The food system is in a crisis because of the way food is produced and the consolidation and organization of the industry itself. To solve it we must move beyond the focus on consumer choice to examine the corporate, scientific, industrial, and political structures that support an unhealthy system. Combating this is going to take more than personal choice and voting with our forks—it’s going to take old-fashioned political activism. We must do much more than create food hubs or find more opportunities for farmers to sell directly to consumers. We must address head-on the “foodopoly”—the handful of corporations that control our food system from seeds to dinner plates.
While the rhetoric in our nation is all about competition and the free market, public policy is geared toward enabling a small cabal of companies to control every aspect of our food system. Today, 20 food corporations produce most of the food eaten by Americans, even organic brands. Four large chains, including Walmart, control more than half of all grocery store sales. Further, science has been allowed to run amok; the biotechnology industry has become so powerful that it can literally buy public policy. Scientists have been allowed to move forward without adequate regulation, and they are now manipulating the genomes of all living things— microorganisms, seeds, fish and animals. Reining in and regulating the biotechnology industry is critical to reforming the dysfunctional food system.
These structural flaws are often overlooked by the good-food movement, which focuses on creating an alternative model from the ground up that will eventually overtake the dysfunctional system. However, this approach raises the questions: for whom and how many? A look at the most recent statistics on local food illustrates this point. A November 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, using 2008 data (the most recent available), found: “Despite increased production and consumer interest, locally grown food accounts for a small segment of U.S. agriculture. For local foods production to continue to grow, marketing channels and supply chain infrastructure must deepen.”
The study found that levels of direct marketing to consumers are highest in the Northeast, on the West Coast, and in a few isolated urban areas outside these regions. Direct marketing of local foods to consumers at farmers markets and CSAs, along with local food sales to grocery stores and restaurants, generated $4.8 billion in sales in 2008 This figure is infinitesimal in comparison to the $1,229 trillion in overall sales from grocery stores, convenience stores, food service companies and restaurants.
Of special significance is the finding that over half of all farms that sell locally are located near metropolitan counties, compared to only a third of all U.S. farms. This illustrates the difficulty that farmers who grow corn, soy, wheat and other feed or cereal grains for commodity markets have in converting their farming operations to direct sales to consumers. These farmers sell crops that reenter the food system as a component of another food—as a sweetener, an oil, a starch or as feed for animals. The lack of a local market, a distribution network or in many cases the infrastructure needed to harvest, aggregate or process local foods is also a tremendous hindrance to creating an alternative food system.
Look at a map of the large agricultural middle of this nation to understand that the few remaining farmers who grow the millions of acres of corn and soybeans, fencerow to fencerow, do not live where they can sell directly to the consumer. Most farmers don’t have nearby affluent urban areas to which to market their crops. They couldn’t switch from commodities to vegetables and fruit even if they had a market, because they have invested in the equipment needed to plant and harvest corn and soy, not lettuce, broccoli or tomatoes. Overly simplistic solutions are often put forward by some leaders in the good-food movement that take the focus away from the root causes of the food crisis—deregulation, consolidation and control of the food supply by a few powerful companies. One of the most prevalent policy solutions put forward as a fix for the dysfunctional system is the elimination of farm subsidies. This silver bullet prescription implies that a few greedy farmers have engineered a farm policy that allows them to live high off the hog on government payments, while small farms languish with no support. Proponents of this response say that if we remove these misapplied subsidies to these few large farms, the system will right itself.
Unfortunately, the good-food movement has been taken in by an oversimplified and distorted analysis of farm data. It is based on a misinterpretation of misleading U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics that greatly exaggerate the number of full-time family farm operations. A close look at the USDA’s Census of Agriculture shows that one third of the 2.2 million entities counted as farms by the agency have sales of under $1,000 and almost two thirds earn under $10,000 a year.
Counting these small ventures as farms not only skews the statistics on the number of farms in the United States; it also makes it appear that only a small percentage receive government payments. In reality, we have under a million full-time farms left, and almost all of them, small and large, receive government subsidies. This is not to say that the subsidy system is good policy. Rather that it is a symptom of a broken food production system, not the cause of the problems. If we penalize farmers for policies that the powerful grain traders, food processors and meat industry have lobbied for, we will never create a sustainable food system. We need midsize farming operations to survive and to be transitioned into a sustainable food system. Midsize family farmers have an average income of $19,277—a figure that includes a government subsidy The cost of seeds, fertilizers, fuel and other inputs is continuing to rise as these industries become more monopolized. Most farmers are scratching by, trying to hold on to their land and eke out a living. We are losing these farms at a rapid rate, resulting in the consolidation of smaller farms into huge corporate-run industrial operations with full-time managers and contract labor. Telling these farmers that all they have to do once the subsidies are taken away is grow vegetables for the local farmers market is not a real solution for them or their communities. Rural communities are seeing the wealth and the profit from agriculture sucked into the bottom lines of the largest food corporations in the world.
Economically viable farms are the lifeblood of rural areas. Their earnings generate an economic multiplier effect when supplies are bought locally, and the money stays within the community. The loss of nearly 1.4 million cattle, hog and dairy farms over the past 30 years has drained not only the economic base from America’s rural communities, but their vitality.
Something is fundamentally amiss in a society that does not value or cherish authentic food that is grown full time on appropriate-size family farms. The benefits of farmers— rather than corporate managers—tending crops and the land are many. Fred Kirschenmann, a North Dakota farmer and a leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, along with his colleagues at the Agriculture in the Middle project writes extensively on this point and poignantly outlines the benefits of these vulnerable midsize farms in today’s economic landscape. These are the farms that could be changed to provide sustainably grown organic food for the long term. Many are located in the Midwest and South, where there is no large population to buy directly from them, but they have the capacity to produce food for the majority of Americans—if given a chance. Changing farm policy to provide that chance is key to preventing our nation’s rural areas from becoming industrial sites and to truly remaking the food system for all Americans. We must address the major structural problems that have created the dysfunction—from the failure to enforce antitrust laws and regulate genetically modified food to the manipulation of nutrition standards and the marketing of junk food to children. We need to move beyond stereotypes and simplistic solutions if we are to build a movement that is broad-based enough to drive policy changes.
Most people are several generations away from the experience of producing their own food. This leads to many misconceptions—from over-romanticizing its hard, backbreaking work to the dismissal of farmers as greedy, ignorant and selfish “welfare queens.” Understanding the difficult challenges they face is critical to developing the policy solutions necessary for saving family farms and moving into a sustainable future. We need to develop a rural economic development plan that enables farmers to make a living while at the same time providing healthy, affordable food choices for all Americans.
We have the opportunity, before it is too late, to change the course of our food system’s development away from factory farms and laboratories and toward a system that is ecologically and economically sound. We can challenge the monopoly control by fighting for the reinstatement of antitrust laws and enforcement of them. We have the land and the human capacity to grow real food—healthy food—but it will take a wholesale effort that includes restructuring how food is grown, sold and distributed. It means organizing a movement to hold our policy makers accountable, so that food and farm policy is transformed and environmental, health and safety laws are obeyed. It will require a massive grassroots mobilization to challenge the multinational corporations that profit from holding consumers and farmers hostage and, more important, to hold our elected officials accountable for the policies that are making us sick and fat. We must comprehend the complexity of the problem to advocate for the solutions. We cannot shop our way out of this mess. The local-food movement is uplifting and inspiring and represents positive steps in the right direction. But now it’s time for us to marshal our forces and do more than vote with our forks. Changing our food system is a political act. We must build the political power to do so. It is a matter of survival.
Copyright © 2012 by Wenonah Hauter. This excerpt originally appeared in Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.