What I want is pretty simple — to be able to eat with confidence that my meal won’t do me in sooner than has to be the case. But that is complicated.
Like a lot of people, I try to pay attention to food labels, read the latest on what food or food additive is more dangerous than delicious and make adjustments. But all that is just nibbling around the edges of a larger problem.
Our whole food system is broken, and Wenonah Hauter says it’s going to take political action to fix it. Hauter is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Food and Water Watch and the author of a new book, “Foodopoly,” in which she makes her case for change. She’s also a farmer in The Plains, Va.
I saw she was going to talk about her ideas at Town Hall Seattle on Monday (7:30 p.m.) so I called her to get a preview.
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“I think that there needs to be a deeper discussion of the structural issues around our dysfunctional food system,” she said. What’s wrong is “deregulation, consolidation and control of the food supply by a few powerful companies.” That is not going to be fixed by a few more people shopping at the farmers market or by arguing over farm subsidies.
“It’s a great thing to vote with the fork, but we need to vote with the vote and keep the people we vote for accountable,” Hauter said.
There are a gazillion books on food and the food supply, but her book isn’t the dessert at the end of the line, it’s an eat-your-vegetables textbook on the political and financial history, current condition and possible future of food in America. It says this on the cover: “The battle over the future of food and farming in America.”
Battles over farm policy have raged at various times in the country’s history, and Hauter, an anthropologist by training, draws on the work of experts from numerous other fields to cover the history, politics, science and economics of food.
The current situation goes back to calls for more efficiency in agriculture. That got us more chemicals, more environmental damage and more big agribusiness that ran medium-size farmers out of business all around the country. It turned many of the remaining farmers into virtual serfs working for a few big companies.
“Large-scale industrial operations comprising only 12 percent of U.S. farms make up 88 percent of the value of farm produce,” she writes.
There are lots of brand names on grocery-store shelves, Hauter said, but just 20 companies own most of them. Those companies have a lot of power in the marketplace.
Similarly, a small group of food processors — Cargill, Tyson, Kraft and Con Agra — dominates agriculture, she writes. And the same kinds of consolidations are happening in the processing and sale of organic foods.
Fewer, larger companies exert more control over producers, over products and over politics. And what’s most profitable for them isn’t necessarily what’s most healthful for the rest of us. The rise of junk food is just one symptom of that.
Hauter has been lucky. Her father left her a farm. Today, it’s hemmed in by upscale subdivisions, but her husband still runs the farm as a community-supported agriculture program, providing organic vegetables on a subscription basis to families in the area.
Her model isn’t the solution, she says, as not every farm is next to an upscale, urban population. Healthful sustainable food for everyone requires breaking up monopolies and returning medium-size farms to health, she said.
That requires consumers to educate themselves, to be active, to vote with change in mind, and to offset some of the impact of lobbyists with phone calls to representatives.
Ultimately, Hauter said, “This is a struggle about our democracy. We can’t fix food without fixing our democracy.”
Consolidation has done damage not just in the food industry, but across many sectors from banking to media. I agree with Hauter that more competition would be healthier for consumers and for democracy.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org