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Hate eating corporate food? Democracy is the best recipe

This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

We may be able to agree that much of our food system is broken, but how we begin to fix it is much harder to understand. Wenonah Hauter, director of Food and Water Watch, takes on this challenge in her new book, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America.

Hauter, who grew up and lives on a farm in Virginia, uses Foodopoly to take readers on a deep dive into our country’s history and our relationships with farmers. Through her book, readers learn about farmers as the heart of the Populist movement, whose organization and alliance with labor leaders made them a political threat. She writes about the systems that were put in place to move men off of farms for cheap labor in cities, to lower prices for crops, and to whittle away at the fabric of rural America — for the sake of corporate profit.

“The food system is in a crisis because of the way that food is produced and the consolidation and organization of the industry itself. Solving it means we must move beyond the focus on consumer choice to examine the corporate, scientific, industrial, and political structures that support an unhealthy system,” she writes in the Introduction. “Combating this is going to take more than personal choice and voting with our forks -- it's going to take old-fashioned political activism. This book aims to show what the problem is and why we must do much more than create food hubs or find more opportunities for farmers to sell directly to consumers. We must address head-on the ‘foodopoly’ -- the handful of corporations that control our food system from seeds to dinner plates.”

Hauter sat down with AlterNet to discuss her new book and talk about the contentious issue of subsidies, why solving our democracy issues are paramount to fixing our food system, and the biggest challenges to creating a sustainable and just food system. (You can read the Introduction to the book here.)

Tara Lohan: There's no doubt we have a big problem with junk food and a lot of the issue comes down to marketing to kids, which you’ve written about in the book in great detail. But it seems like a much larger cultural problem then that.

Wenonah Hauter: I think it’s part of the dysfunction of society as people have forgotten how to cook. We want everyone to enjoy healthy food, not just small segments of society. We have to fix the policy things and then we have to fix the things in society that make it impossible for people to actually cook. That's why we can't fix our food system without fixing our democracy. People don't have time to cook because they work two jobs. They are not paid enough to purchase the healthy ingredients and the food system is not going to solve these problems. We have to have a political system ask why there is an ever increasing stratification and why they allow the media to set the agenda through advertising and the culture that we created today.

It's complex. There's no magic bullet. I'm dealing in Foodopoly with the food policy piece but that's just a slice of the pie. We also have to do something about these corporations benefitting from really the wrong values around food and the fact that 90% of the food budget of most Americans goes towards processed foods. We need to take away the economic incentive.

TL: When I first moved to California in 2006, we had three years of drought and now the Plains and the Midwest are experiencing quite a bit of drought. For all of our industrialization and “modernization” of our food supply, it seems incredibly vulnerable, especially considering the impacts of climate change and what we may be going through in the coming decades.

WH: There is no doubt that we are in for some shock in production. I think California with the snow pack decreasing is really in a very vulnerable place and in fact, the droughts in the Midwest, the loss of crops this year and even on the East Cost beyond Hurricane Sandy and all of the dramatic weather, you can see the weather patterns changing. I see this in my own life, having grown up on this farm. We used to have thunderstorms during the summer. We got a lot of rain. Now we go through long periods of drought. In fact, we would probably not have vegetables on our farm if we didn't have water to irrigate with. We have springs. You just couldn't grow anymore.

This is true out on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware where the people who are still doing farming all irrigate and I have spent some time talking to people there who say their parents and grandparents never irrigated. We are in trouble and it's global crisis and it's one of the reasons we need to deal with climate change. I think it's also one of the reasons we need common-sense policy of having a grain reserve because we are going to see famine and the problems with the lack of production because of drought and crazy weather.

TL: You got into organic food because it was not just about food but it was linked into social issues and environmental justice and economic justice. Now so much of the organic market is dominated by big corporations — do you see this as problematic?

WH: I think it has to do with how everything is commoditized and seen as a niche market and so the large purveyors of organic food view it as a niche market where they can charge higher prices. In the book, I talk about when I was very young and how we went back to the land, but when I was in college we grew organic food completely differently as part of a system that did look at values and social justice as well.

Now we have the 14 of the 20 largest food companies that dominate the system. Here in the Bay Area you have some choices, but in most parts of the country there are very few choices where people can actually shop for organic food and Whole Foods dominates the market. What most people don't realize is that there is a stranglehold on the distribution of organic products and it is largely responsible for driving many co-ops and smaller natural food stores out of business.

I was giving a book talk a couple of weeks ago in a rural area on the East Coast and an organic deli was providing some of the treats for the book signing and the owner told me that his cost has gone up 8% in the last year. They are driving up the price. What drove me to write Foodopoly was the question “why is organic food expensive?” It's not just a higher cost of labor, it's also a small number of companies that control retail sales and distribution and those companies — the smaller enterprises that produce organic products in a market place — they have no one to distribute the product. It really reflects the consolidation elsewhere in our food system.

TL: I thought it was interesting when you mentioned that not everyone can be a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, not everyone can sell direct to consumers. Either they are not close enough to a population center or that's not the kind of crop they are growing.

WH: Right, and a CSA is not for everybody. We need other ways to get healthy foods into the system, as wonderful as CSAs are, we need smaller grocery retailers.

TL: Do you think of anti-trust legislation as being one of the primary steps in reforming the food system?

WH: Yes, and I think we need to start by adding it to the agenda and demanding that Congress do a study of the affects of consolidation on the food system in rural communities. The Obama administration just chickened out last year about livestock, the consolidation that's affecting the livestock industry. We need to jumpstart that process and get Washington on the farm bill. That's one of the things I'm hoping to use Foodopoly for.

TL: You’ve written in the book that farmers shouldn’t be demonized because of our subsidy system — which is part of a much larger broken food system. Can you talk about how farmers survived and flourished before subsidies?

WH: One of the things that happened during the New Deal is that people in rural areas were just really suffering. Part of the New Deal legislation established these programs so that there wouldn't be overproduction because overproduction is the bane of farmers. In fact, after World War I, farmers had suffered terribly because they geared up, produced a lot for Europe during the war and then after the war, all of that production wasn't needed and then prices plummeted.

The idea was to have government programs that would keep overproduction from happening. There was a reserve program, a grain program that was established so that in times of abundance the grain would be put in this reserve and stored basically on farmers' farms and then during drought and other times, the grain could be used. There were also set-aside programs that actually prevented overproduction and kept ground that is marginal from having crops growing on it, which is actually a very good thing for the environment. These programs were established and it meant that farmers were actually making an income on par with the rest of society -- with people who were from urban areas. This worked really well into World War II and after the war and into the 1950s, but you can imagine that there were economic interests that wanted access to these commodities for below the price of production.

I explain in Foodopoly that there was this organization put together called Committee for Economic Development and it's really fascinating. They were business leaders who formed this business association to help develop economic and social policies for post-WWII and one of the things that they wanted to do was to make sure that there was enough cheap labor that they could actually “get these boys off the farm” (which is a quote), and they started politically to lobby, to write materials and to chip away at these policies into the 1950s. During the Eisenhower administration they successfully reduced what farmers were paid on par with the rest of society and this continued right up into the 1990s.

Fast-forward to the debates over the World Trade Organization and NAFTA. Really as the U.S. joined the WTO and got in line with this group for trade policies, one of the things that had to happen was that the farm programs had to be eliminated and in 1996 during the Clinton administration, the last vestiges of the New Deal programs were done away with and that took the government's role out of the market for commodities. That meant that there was immediately terrible overproduction. By 1998 I think corn prices were 50% below what they had been. Soy was something like 40% below and there was real pain and suffering in rural areas and a lot of political pressure.

Congress came in with temporary emergency payments in 1998 and by 2002, those were permanent. That's the birth of the subsidy system that we see today and this was a big boon for all of those companies that benefit from commodity prices. The overproduction made money for the grain traders and the meat industry. In fact, factory farms spiraled really big during this period.

The average small and mid-size farmer today makes just over $19,000 and some of that is from the government payments. These people are hardly making a killing. There are 115,000 very large farms that are obviously making more. This isn't a system that I'm defending. My mother used to say, don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we get rid of the subsidy system without reforming the market, we are going to lose all these farms that are just barely hanging on because all of the consolidation means there is no marketplace for farmers to sell into, whether they are livestock commodities or really even for organic producers.

TL: Do you think reforming subsidies should even be a major issue of food organizations?

WH: I think that the focus should be on what we need to do to actually fix the food system. That is both creating the marketplace, creating the infrastructure for this reformed system and we should restore some of the programs that actually kept overproduction from happening.

It doesn't really make sense that we don't have grain reserve. We have an oil reserve. Why wouldn't we have a grain reserve? We should be taking land, marginal land out of production. I always fail to understand why a lot of the environmentalists haven't been able to get behind the idea of trying to reestablish some of the programs that work, but also dealing with this monopolization of things that there is really no place for farmers to actually sell into.

TL: You mentioned that your impetus for this book was having to deal with people talking about food being so expensive and organic food being for wealthy people. How do we get beyond that issue?

WH: Well, I think we have to start dealing with some of the real issues around the economic system and actually get to the anti-trust issue. Our economic system is built on the idea that there is competition and all public policy is directed at taking care of the competition and in fact, promoting mergers and acquisitions. We are about to have another couple of big mergers, JBS, the biggest meat company in the world, second largest in the U.S. is about to acquire the second largest meat company in Canada. ConAgra, one of the biggest processed food companies is about to absorb one of their competitors, Ralcorp. Nobody knows the name Ralcorp but they are one of the largest store-brand processed food companies.

There is no evidence that there is going to be anything going down to the FDA. It looks like it's going to move right on through. That's why I think we have to start talking about these issues.

TL: It seems like a lot of it just comes down to money and politics and the corporations that are writing the laws.

WH: It does. It definitely speaks to our legalized system of bribery. These are issues that have to be dealt with in coalition.

TL: Without healthy small and mid-sized farms we really stand to lose the heart of rural America. What’s the value of protecting it? What happens to our country without that?

WH: I actually wanted to write a chapter about this in the book. I think it's obvious to everybody out there the ecological reasons to save it, but there are also a lot of political reasons. If you look at the composition of Congress, it's kind of a cultural war that's going on and why it is so difficult to get a very progressive agenda in Congress, or even have a sensible agenda, it's because many of the rural areas in our country have been so adversely affected by losing agriculture and have been able to be manipulated into having things that aren't necessarily beneficial.

I think that actually investing in rural America, revitalizing the economy and making alliances could, over the long term, be beneficial in a lot of different ways both to the environment and politically. If we want to do anything about these issues, we have to form some relationships there.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the new book  Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. You can follow her on Twitter  @TaraLohan

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