Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America

  • Wenonah Hauter
  • The New Press
  • 368 pp.

How the domination of the American food supply by a select few businesses is damaging our health, the environment and livelihoods.

After reading Foodopoly, a reader may find herself carefully considering the food in grocery aisles and kitchen. How do I know my spinach is bacteria-free? Did the hamburger once belong to a sick cow? Is there arsenic in the poultry? Does the bottled water contain traces of industrial chemicals and fertilizers?

The suspicion will likely extend past the groceries to the colossal companies that produce the foods many of us eat regularly. In her new book, Wenonah Hauter chronicles how much of our food is supplied and sold by only a handful of enormous businesses, and she makes the case that many of them consistently put profits ahead of consumer health and safety.

Throughout her seven-part tome Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch (a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group), convincingly argues that America must reform its food system. “Since [the Reagan era], the failure to stop massive consolidation has allowed a handful of companies to control the entire food chain — from seeds, fertilizer, and implements to processing, distribution and retail grocery chains,” she writes. Such consolidation threatens our food safety, environment, health, and the American tradition of small- and mid-size farming.

For instance, readers may not have heard of Cargill (the largest grain trader in the world that also manufactures fertilizer and feeds and processes corn, wheat, soy and oilseeds), but “most Americans eat something that Cargill has produced every single day,” Hauter writes. And it’s not just at the production level. The top four U.S. food retailers — Walmart, Kroger, Costco and Target — control 50 percent of all grocery sales (and one out of every three dollars spent on groceries in the U.S. goes to Walmart). Americans spend 90 percent of their food budgets on processed foods, and many consumers don’t realize that a mere “20 food corporations produce most of the food eaten by Americans, even organic brands,” she adds.

At the same time, small- to mid-size farms are struggling to survive as unfair prices and equally unfair regulations favor large agribusinesses. For example, of a $19.09 12-piece bucket of chicken at KFC, $3 to $5 goes to the poultry company (who supplies the chicks and does the slaughter), 25 cents goes to the grower (who performs the long, hard labor of raising the chickens), and the rest goes to KFC. As companies merge, integrate and grow, they use their multiplied power to influence the farm and food policies that affect us all in what Hauter calls a dysfunctional food system. Because these companies — and their powerful associations, such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America — are so large, they can afford to hire a legion of lobbyists to help influence votes on farming and food policies.

These agribusinesses, such as Dean Foods, Cargill, Nestle, Kraft, Tysons, JBS, PepsiCo and others, benefit from current policies that encourage overproduction, consumption of junk food, and low pay to farmers. As these companies become more dominant, smaller companies and smaller farms are forced out. Though this perfect storm for powerful food producers has been brewing for more than a century, many Americans don’t realize how much has changed even in the last 20 years. “As late as 1998, the majority of the milk was produced on small farms with fewer than 200 cows, but today more than a quarter of all milk comes from industrial dairies that have over 2,000 cows,” she writes.

In addition, Hauter laments the damage our current system does to the environment. The sludge ponds and sewage waste from animal feed lots often leaks into local waterways, or the waste is overloaded onto local fields, where it runs off. “Most cattle feedlots are located in rural counties, yet the large numbers in these areas produce the same amount of waste as some of America’s largest cities,” she notes. At the same time, food inspection and regulation are weakened, with less government oversight and new policy trends that leave food safety up to the companies (which, she says, favor allowing terrible contamination remedied by end-of-line treatment such as irradiation). In addition, the long-term environmental and health consequences for genetic modification are largely unknown, yet companies are moving forward with researching and selling genetically-modified products.

Though Hauter praises the food movement’s shift towards farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture (CSAs) and regional food hubs, these efforts are not enough, she says. To change our food system, we must change policies and regulations that have been entrenched for over a century. Rewrite policies to support small- and mid-size farmers and establish better regulations, she says, and our food system will grant Americans more work, better wages, healthier food, more humane farms, a healthier environment and safer choices. “Re-creating the food system to benefit all Americans will require a range of policy changes from enforcing antitrust law to regulating the marketing of junk food to children,” she recommends. In this call to action for the food movement, Hauter succeeds in justifying the urgent need for reform.

Throughout her meticulously researched book, Hauter’s passion for the subject shines through on every page. This book is not for the squeamish: readers will discover shocking and more than a few repulsive snapshots of how many of the large companies process our food. They’ll also find a history of how these agribusinesses and familiar household names came to rule our daily diets, as well as a reason to rally around family farmers who have been vilified by agribusinesses (but in reality are just scraping by). Stick with Hauter past the first chapter, a detailed history of farming policy and politics, and you’ll be rewarded with a depth of understanding about how your food gets from farm to grocery store — and perhaps gain reasons to join the rising “good food” movement.

Carrie Madren of Northern Virginia is a freelance journalist who writes about the environment, sustainability and science.

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