Foodopoly pushes for political action

Wenonah Hauter. Photo: TedxManhattan, CC some rights reserved

A new book by the executive director of Food & Water Watch explores the consolidation of the U.S. food industry, and "the battle over the food and farming in America."  In an interview with, Wenonah Hauter talks about her book, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America.

Just 20 companies produce most of the food eaten by Americans (yes, even organic brands). These companies are so large, they have the economic and political power to dictate food policy, from laws on advertising junk food to children and manipulating   nutrition standards to weakening federal pesticide regulations and blocking the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Hauter has a lot to say about how the system got where it is, and she has suggestions for people concerned about it.

The  natural response is to try and “shop better.” That’s important, and as you learn more you may end up questioning some products you’ve been buying for years. But as I say throughout my book, we can’t shop our way out of the problems in the food system.

Hauter goes on to suggest that people find ways to "get involved in building a food movement that has the political power to change the rules for our food system."

Find a local organization working on food policy in your community or do research on your local officials and how to contact them — then call them up and tell them you expect them to step up on a food issue that matters to you,  whether it’s labeling [genetically engineered] foods or passing a better farm bill.

Many people around the country have been working on such efforts.  People in Vermont and Connecticut have pushed for GMO labeling laws.  Vermont leaders didn't pass a measure last year, fearing agri-giant Monsanto would sue the state.  California voters turned down a proposal last November to label GM foods there.  The campaign against GM labeling spent $40 million dollars to defeat the measure.  This is obviously big business.

But citizens who care about this issue are not giving up.  Just this month, supporters of a GMO labeling law in Washington State turned in petitions signed by around 350,000 registered voters to their secretary of state.  That means the Washington State legislature would have to consider it, or leave it up to voters in November.

This post is not meant to support GMO labeling laws.  As far as I'm concerned, that is a debate for another day.   What I'm wondering is whether advice like Hauter's, to contact local organizations and officials, can still make a difference.  Is a system that's allowed 20 companies to get so huge that they control most of the food supply open to the voice of concerned individuals, or even local leaders?   This GMO labeling issue could provide a good test of that.

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  1. Food supply consolidation is one of the big unexamined issues of our day. It's akin to the problem of 'too big to fail' banks: when corporations have so much control over a part of the economy it becomes very difficult to regulate them.

    GMO labeling laws are a bit of a sideshow. Hauter is correct when she says we can't shop our way out of this. I think the biggest problem is we've allowed a handful of elected officials to speak for all farmers and consumers in crafting food policy. In order for things to change we have to get more voices into the conversation, which means convincing the Cuomos and Obamas of the world that ag issues are national and global issues and control of policy shouldn't be handed over to interested parties.

  2. Perhaps stories like this will encourage our IDAs and the like to fund local food processing plants and slaughter houses. Maybe the state can pave the way by revising some regulations to make them more applicable to smaller operations.
    Anyone out there want to make an investment in local food processing and distribution?

    • Regulations are what kills the small producer if they want to market their product. No way can they afford the hoops that the government wants them to jump through, especially on the meat side. These are the unintended consequences of regulation which are never publicized.

    • Hey Kirby – USDA has new microloans program for local food production…

      • I know and will be looking into it.

  3. How is this even about GMOs? I think we can see the slant of the authors very clearly when this is the main issue raised with respect to the consolidation of food resources.

    However, on the issue, I think that the local food movement has been very successful in getting some people to support local food, produced the way they want want it, even though it isn't always better. These people need to recognize that local, or non GMO, is a choice that not everyone supports, or can afford. They need to buy for themselves and stop trying to add cost to the people who can't afford it. We don't need labeling laws; anyone is free to market their product as GMO free if they so choose. Why should the rest of us have to bear that oost? If there is a market at a profitable level, it will be supplied, we don't need to regulate it.

    • It's about GMOs because that part of Food and Water Watch's goals.

  4. I just got up and looked into my fridge to make sure… My interaction with the twenty food giants involves dairy, baking ingredients, some condiments, and booze. Everything else we eat is either locally sourced or produced in our own gardens, and one of our little clan is even working on beer.
    The choice to step away from all commercial meats came after one of those tainted ground meat stories. The choice to begin to eat more locally came after reading the sticker on some piece of fruit, and realizing that I didn't need someone to send me an orange from 8000 miles away. The choice to leave sugar out of our diets came from watching another older person die so horribly. I once read that "health insurance is what we serve at the table each day". Knowing where exactly your food comes from is powerfully comforting.

  5. Local is great, no one's knocking it. Around here we can easily choose to eat local if we want to. But that isn't the whole answer. Kraft Foods and Tyson really don't care if they lose the handful of customers who leave them to buy from CSAs. And they are clever enough to market in a way that plays to consumers' desire for more 'natural' foods.

    I believe we need another Upton Sinclair to pull the curtain back and get everyone engaged in thinking about what we produce and how it's done.