January 18, 2013

Breaking Up the Foodopoly

While many of us hope our farmers market purchases are helping repair a broken food system, let’s face it: all the locally grown organic broccoli in the world will only get us so far. Our dollars are valuable to the farmers at the market, but the domination of the American foodscape by a few powerful corporate players continues to limit consumer choices while squeezing out small and sustainable farmers and food producers.

In her new book, Foodopoly: The Battle over the Future of Food and Farming in America, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch Wenonah Hauter examines the consolidation of the American food system from seed to plate, and the structural and policy changes needed to reverse course. Having grown up in farming, she knows the challenges independent farmers face in an increasingly corporate world. We spoke with Hauter about the book and what concerned citizens can do to take back our food system.

What are some of the biggest revelations you had while writing Foodopoly?

Wenonah Hauter: I knew that there was tremendous consolidation throughout our food system, but I didn’t realize to what degree, especially in organic foods. When you go into the grocery store it looks like there are hundreds and hundreds of brands, but there are just a few companies that own the brands. There are about 20 companies that control the brands for conventional foods, and 14 of those also control the organics market.

One of the things that encouraged me to write this book is that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about why organic food is more expensive. Of course, organics cost more because there’s more labor and more sustainable practices involved. But when you look at the reason that organic foods are more expensive in places like Whole Foods, it also has to do with consolidation. It turns out that there is only one major distributor for organic food in the country, United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI), and Whole Foods is their biggest customer. What you see with this kind of consolidation is the ability of a couple of companies to impact the price of food. I think that’s something of concern.

These large conventional companies are also trying to weaken the organic standards, and I don’t think any of us want to see organic standards weaker than they are already. We’d like to see them strengthened.

How do large corporations impact our health and food choices?

WH: Something else I learned in writing the book is how these companies have used food science to figure out how to addict people to processed foods. The typical American household spends 90% of its budget on processed foods at grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and other restaurants. These companies have employed scientists to figure out how to use fat, sugar, and salt so that people reach a bliss point: their brain actually produces dopamine, which creates a reward system for eating these processed foods.

It’s interesting to think about who’s really responsible for people being overweight and unhealthy. These companies, through their advertising and political power, are able to dictate everything from nutrition-related rules to pesticide regulations to labeling requirements. You can’t really shop your way out of this problem. We need everybody to be involved in the political system.

If we can’t shop our way to a better food system, what is the value of shopping at the farmers market? And how can we go beyond just voting with our forks?

WH: I think it’s very important that people vote with their fork, and we’ve seen some amazing choices come forth because people have become more interested in food. But shopping alone is not enough to protect you and your family. For instance, genetically engineered (GE) foods are becoming more a part of the American diet, and most people are exposed to them in some way. Our ability to label GE foods would be a big advancement. I know that people in California were very disappointed that Proposition 37 was not voted into law, but the initiative began an education process. In states around the country, labeling laws will be debated this time around. They may not pass the first time, but this is all part of getting the issue out there and building political power.

Do you have any reflections on why Proposition 37 didn’t pass or what we can do differently next time?

WH: These initiatives need to come after there’s a period of grassroots organizing. People need to know about the issue, because the industry is going to try to outspend us. I felt the initiative was a little premature from the beginning, although we at Food & Water Watch worked very hard to pass it once the signatures had been gathered. In California now, a lot of people are educated about GE labeling, and when the time is right, we’ll be able to come back and push something in the legislature.

For those of us who want to go beyond voting with our forks, what are some actions you would recommend?

WH: Right now we have a big battle over GE salmon. There’s a 60-day period in which the FDA is taking comments on their very poorly put-together assessment of the safety of this GE salmon. Writing a letter or sending an email can make a difference. [Public comment period ends February 25. You can learn more and sign Food & Water Watch’s GE salmon petition here.]

Ultimately, people need to get involved in elections. We need to elect the people who are going to look after our health and safety rather than corporate profits. I know that there are a lot of ways elections are not as fulfilling as we’d like because all of the corporate money, but we can’t give up on our democracy.

How can we get more people engaged in these issues?

WH: It takes everyone talking to their friends and families. I think a lot of people are looking for solutions. Even though the mainstream media doesn’t always cover these issues because of the advertising dollars, we still have ways to communicate through the internet. It’s exciting to see a new generation activated about problems related to climate change, the food system, and sustainable living, so that humanity can go on surviving and thriving.

Wenonah Hauter will be speaking and signing books at Book Passage in the Ferry Building next Tuesday, January 22. Learn more.

All photos and infographics courtesy of Food & Water Watch. To view large versions of the infographics, click here.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »