NOTE: This is a guest post from Siena Chrisman, Manager of Strategic Partnerships & Alliances at WhyHunger.
On Saturday, Occupy Against Big Food will converge on Zuccotti Park, home base of Occupy Wall Street. It’s an exciting step, coming after several weeks of discussion among food justice advocates about our common cause with the Occupy movement. Back in the second week of protests, I joined a march to Wall Street as part of a food justice delegation. The baskets of local vegetables we carried attracted a lot of attention, but we were surprised by all of the puzzled looks. “What’s the connection here with food?” people kept asking us.
The connections of the protests with food, of course, are many. Locally, many food justice advocates are connecting with Occupy sites to donate food or kitchen space. More broadly, as Mark Bittman observes, “Whether we’re talking about food, politics… or banking, the big question remains the same: How do we bring about fundamental change?” In the U.S. today, the richest one percent hold 40 percent of the wealth, while almost one in five Americans is on food stamps. The massive wealth disparities, excessive corporate power, and lack of democracy the Occupiers are addressing are abundantly clear in the food system as well. Two points in the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City address food–barely scratching the surface of the potential connections, but providing an important opening for the food movement. Will we seize it?
Speculation Drives up Food Costs
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy recently wrote about the clearest connection: “Wall Street deregulation has… increased prices and price volatility in agricultural markets.” The relationship between government and Wall Street firms has turned food into commodity like any other, subject to the whims of the market. For decades, only people directly involved in agriculture (e.g., farmers) could freely trade futures of agricultural commodities (e.g., corn, soy, wheat); outside speculators were subject to strict limits on participation. Futures trading gave farmers a guaranteed price for future harvests, and prices stayed relatively stable for all sides.
But in 2000, a wave of industry-backed deregulation removed these limits on speculation, opening commodity markets to new players—including funds controlled by some of the biggest Wall Street firms looking for new investments after the housing bubble burst. Flooded with new money, in 2008, the commodity markets exploded, driving up grain prices worldwide, with catastrophic results for millions of people. In 2008 and 2009, the UN estimated that an additional 130 million people were driven into hunger by the food price bubble. Food riots broke out around the world. Today’s protests have echoes of those riots–the effects of food and energy speculation continue in 2011. One recent study estimates that U.S. gas prices are $0.83 higher per gallon due to Wall Street speculation, and food commodity prices are as high, or higher, than they were in 2008–even as 46 million Americans live below the poverty line, struggling with basic expenses like food.
A New Colonialism
Alerted to the potential market in agriculture, Wall Street investors have also begun buying up huge parcels of farmland all over the world, displacing the occupants, and converting subsistence production to cash crops–or, worse, simply leaving the land fallow and waiting for its value to increase. According to international NGO GRAIN, more than 50 million hectares of land have been transferred from farmers to corporations since 2009. “Land grabs” have affected tens of thousands of people around the world who have been driven off their land–often violently–with little or no compensation, given no say in the process, and left with no recourse. For most of them, land is their livelihood; without it, the future is bleak.
Land grabs are perpetrated by governments, private sector corporations, pension funds, and university endowments–as well as by banks and international finance groups [PDF]. Some of these deals have a stated agenda of food security in the buyer country–at the expense of food security of those moved off the land–but many others are purely business deals, seeking to profit off of land on which millions of people are merely trying to feed themselves.
Too Big to Feed Us
Meanwhile, U.S. agribusiness is getting bigger and bigger, and, like the financial sector, is subject to less and less government regulation or oversight. When the top four companies in any industry control over 50 percent of the market, that industry is at risk of being controlled by a monopoly. Right now, the top four companies control 85 percent of the nation’s beef, 70 percent of pork, and 60 percent of poultry. Walmart controls nearly 30 percent of the US grocery market–and over 50 percent in many regional markets. A marketplace dominated by just a few players is subject to abuse of all kinds, and, indeed, all along the food chain, people are being squeezed by powerful corporations: Walmart demands low prices from suppliers, so the suppliers cut wages for workers; most food stores rely on a single national buyer, so small producers can’t products onto the shelves; supermarket chains buy out the competition and then close the only store in a low-income neighborhood.
The level of consolidation all along the food chain has reached such an extreme degree that last year the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the USDA conducted an investigation into antitrust issues in agriculture and food. A year of workshops included expert testimony and thousands of personal stories about farm foreclosures, workers’ rights abuses, unfair contracts, poor access to healthy food, and corporate propaganda; much of it demonstrating that antitrust laws are not protecting citizens from powerful corporations. Seven months after the investigation concluded, the departments issued a letter saying that their study is ongoing. In the face of significant public pressure, including petitions from Care2 members and almost a quarter of a million others requesting immediate action, the promise of nothing more than further study makes it seem that the voices of big business have been louder than those of the people.
Many food justice advocates are well aware that to truly create a healthy and just food system, we must also address issues larger than food. At an Iowa town hall meeting addressed to the DOJ and USDA, a local family farmer wanted to talk not about his farm, but about power. “Industry cannot turn one wheel unless people make those machines work,” he said. “We have the power here, and we need to understand what that power means.”
To change the food system, we need systemic change in financial institutions, regulation, corporate influence; we need a shift in power. For a movement that has long been waiting for its moment, uniting in common cause with Occupy Wall Street–Occupying Against Big Food–may be the way to finally build enough power to create the change we need.
Photo courtesy of civileats.com