Corporate consolidation is occurring in numerous U.S. industries, but one of the places where it’s particularly obvious is in the food chain. 80% of beef packing, for example, is dominated by just four firms: Tyson, Cargill, Swift & Co., and the National Beef Packing Company. Tyson also controls a hefty share of other aspects of the meet industry, including pork and chicken packing, and it’s not alone. A lot of very large companies have a very deep reach into the methods of food production, packaging and preparation in the United States, particularly when it comes to wheat, corn, soy and meat, some of the most profitable areas of the agriculture industry.
That includes organic products, by the way. Philip Howard’s detailed Organic Processing Industry Structure map is a fascinating glimpse at who owns what in the organic world, and if you haven’t seen it before, you might be surprised. Kashi and Morningstar farms are controlled by Kellogg, for instance, while Hain Celestial owns MaraNatha, WestSoy, Rice Dream, Garden of Eatin’, and a whole lot more.
Wenonah Hauter is discussing these issues in her new book, “Foodopoly,” which looks at the rise of industrial agriculture, consolidation, and who is responsible for reforming the dysfunctional food system in the U.S. With, as she puts it, “just 20 companies produc[ing] most of the food eaten by Americans (yes, even organic brands),” reform of the food system needs to come from outside. Those firms have the lobbyists and other connections to push for legislation and policy favoring their interests, right down to what children are served in the cafeteria.
Hauter points out that a combination of deregulation and consolidation has made it hard to find independent brands in the grocery store, and that makes it difficult to “shop better.” There are often few alternatives available to consumers in conventional food settings, because so much of the marketplace is controlled by distant corporations. This may not be a problem that can be solved with a wallet, although decisions about where and how to use money can certainly play an important role. Her solution, and mine as well, lies on building up local food systems to reestablish direct connections between consumers and farmers, keep money local and rebuild robust local food networks.
There are a lot of options for getting involved with local food movements, and a growing number of communities are starting to recognize their value. Panels interested in promoting locally-focused food policies that include regional sourcing by government agencies, grants for farmers and promotion of local products, for example, are sprouting up around the U.S., along with community gardens, urban farms and training programs for people who want to try their hand at producing their own food. Likewise, farmers’ markets are becoming more and more common, though you have to approach them with caution — as they’ve gotten trendy, accusations of fake or misleading advertising have become a concern in some areas. These groups welcome community involvement and usually have lots of information available for volunteers, prospective employees and people interested in internships.
Promoting local food systems and independence also involves contacting legislators as well as local officials and promoting things like California’s recent cottage foods law, allowing for sale of certain homemade goods. Pressure from citizens can help public officials make informed decisions about governance.
This is a revolution that starts on the back 40 and reaches into the kitchen, and it may not be found on the shelves of the grocery store.
Photo credit: John Fowler