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Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America from Monsanto to Wal-Mart

Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, joins us to discuss her new book, "Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America." Hauter tackles the corporations behind the meat, vegetables, grains and milk consumed by millions every day — including some of the most popular organic brands. "Foodopoly" details how a handful of large corporations control the nation’s food production in ways that limit how small farms operate and how ordinary people make choices in grocery stores. And in the wake of the recently passed provision dubbed by critics as the "Monsanto Protection Act," Hauter also discusses the new report by Food & Water Watch, "Monsanto: A Corporate Profile." [includes rush transcript]

 

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to Senator Jon Tester of Montana. It’s unusual that a family farmer is a senator these days, but that’s just what Senator Tester is. In March, he tried to block the rider decried by critics as the "Monsanto Protection Act." He spoke from the Senate floor.

SEN. JON TESTER: Mr. President, Montana is home to thousands of working families that make a living off the land. Like my wife and I, they’re family farmers and ranchers. The House of Representatives is prepared to toss those working families aside in favor of the nation’s large meatpacking corporations.

The House inserted a provision in the bill that gives enormous marketing power to America’s three largest meatpacking corporations, while stiffing family farmers and ranchers. Family-run production agriculture faces tremendous market manipulation. Chicken farmers, hog farmers, cattle ranchers all struggle to get a fair price from the meatpackers, and if they fight back, they risk angering corporate representatives and being shut out of the market. Thanks to this provision, the Agricultural Department will not be able to ensure a fair, open market that put the brakes on the worst abuses by the meatpacking industry. What’s worse is that the USDA took congressionally mandated steps to protect ranchers from market manipulation over the last few years. That’s what we told them to do in the 2008 farm bill. And this provision will actually overturn rules that the USDA has already put into place. But apparently, intense, behind-the-scenes lobbying won out in the House of Representatives, and now we’re back to square one with the big meatpackers calling the shots.

The second provision sent over from the House tells the USDA to ignore any judicial ruling regarding the planting of genetically modified crops. Its supporters are calling it "Farmer Assurance Provision." But all it really assures is a lack of corporate liability. The provision says that when a judge finds that the USDA approved a crop illegally, the department must re-approve the crop and allow it to continue to be planted, regardless of what the judge says. Now let’s think about that. The United States Congress is telling the Agricultural Department that even if a court tells you that you’ve failed to follow the right process and tells you to start over, you must disregard the court’s ruling and allow the crop to be planted anyway. Not only does this ignore the constitutional idea of separation of powers, but it also lets genetically modified crops take hold across this country, even when a judge finds it violates the law—once again, agribusiness multinational corporations putting farmers as serfs. It’s a dangerous precedent. Mr. President, it will paralyze the USDA, putting the department in the middle of a battle between Congress and the courts. And the ultimate loser will be our family farmers going about their business and feeding America in the right way.

Sunshine Week shouldn’t be a show-and-tell, Mr. President. And slipping corporate giveaways into a bill at the same time that we call for more open government is doubling down on the same policies that created the need for Sunshine Week in the first place. That’s why I’ve introduced two amendments to remove these corporate welfare provisions from the bill. Montana has elected me to go to the Senate to do away with the shady backroom deals, to get rid of handouts to big corporations and to make government work better.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Montana senator, a Democrat, Jon Tester. He’s a family farmer, lost several of his fingers in a meat-grinding accident when he was nine years old. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Aaron?

AARON MATÉ: Yeah, and we’re still with Wenonah Hauter in Washington, the executive director of Food & Water Watch. Wenonah, you’ve come out with a book called Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America. We’re going to turn to that in a second, but first, your group is just putting out a report called "Monsanto: A Corporate Profile." Lay out for us your findings.

WENONAH HAUTER: Well, our findings are that Monsanto has so much power over the political process that it’s basically buying public policy. That’s why we’ve seen this terrible rider recently. It’s why we have such a lax process for approving genetically engineered crops. And it goes back all the way to the 1980s, when these crops were being developed, and Monsanto went into the Reagan administration and said, "You know, we’ve been involved in a lot of litigation." Because Monsanto had been a producer of some of the most dangerous chemicals—PCBs, dioxin—they were involved in hundreds of lawsuits. So, they didn’t want a new law that would actually be a real review process for genetically engineered crops. They wanted to have a very lax set of bureaucratic hoops that they knew they could jump through and that their young startup competitors would not be able to jump through. And that’s how we’ve ended up with this mishmash of different agencies involved in approving genetically engineered crops.

It’s why we don’t really have a regulatory system that is doing the research that’s looking at the long-term impacts that these crops have, not just in terms of health and safety, but the economic impacts because of the increasing price of seeds, the increasing use of the co-branded herbicides. Roundup Ready has doubled in use in the last few years. Now we’re seeing new genetically engineered seeds created that have even more dangerous chemicals that are co-branded with them. And so, we’re really on a downward spiral with these types of crops. And genetically engineered crops are the underpinning of our dysfunctional food system. As Greg mentioned, they are the components of processed food.

AMY GOODMAN: And how this issue—talk about the corporate farmer versus the family farmer, like your family in northern Virginia.

WENONAH HAUTER: Well, you know, what’s happened over the past several decades is that it’s become increasingly impossible for farmers to make a living. And I mean even midsize and small commodity farmers. We have fewer than a million family farmers left. And if you look at what a midsize family farmer—and I’m talking about commodities—corn, wheat and soy—they make, on average, $19.2 thousand. And shockingly, half of that is from a government payment.

Now, there is a movement for community-supported agriculture. You know, I’m lucky. I grew up on a farm. I inherited my family’s farm. But my farm is 45 miles west of Washington, D.C., where there’s a huge market for foods that are grown with organic practices, where people want to bring their children out to see a farm. Now that’s very different from the vast majority of farms in this country. Only one-third of the farms in this country are anywhere near a metropolitan area. We need to shape a food system that allows farmers to make a living and transition into a sustainable farming future. And we can’t do that with the current rules in place. And I think that really that’s why I wrote Foodopoly, to lay out why we need to look at the bigger structural issues that are causing our dysfunctional food system. And I’m talking about the consolidation and concentration of power in the hands of just a few companies, and companies beyond Monsanto.

AARON MATÉ: Well, one of those companies is Wal-Mart. And you have a chapter called "Walmarting the Food Chain." Can you talk about this?

WENONAH HAUTER: Well, over the past few years, since the—well, it’s the past few decades, since the Reagan administration eviscerated antitrust law. Those are the rules that prevented companies from getting too big, from buying their competitors, from concentrating power in the hands of a just—just a few companies. Since that time, we’ve seen the grocery industry consolidate. We now have four grocery stores that control 50 percent of sales, and in many areas 70 to 90 percent of sales. Wal-Mart is the very largest. One out of three grocery dollars is spent at Wal-Mart. And if you look at the economic impact, the Wal-Mart heirs have as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of Americans.

And what Wal-Mart has figured out, how they operate, is that they have a logistical system that sucks all of the profit out of the food chain. So, one thing is that they need enormous volume. So, they would much rather deal with a giant meatpacker like Tyson than a lot of smaller family farms or even midsize farms. They have a system where they force their suppliers to use their IT system, to track their own inventory, to use all of the contracting requirements that they put into writing. In fact, there are no contract negotiations with Wal-Mart. And so, even the largest food processors in this country have to do whatever Wal-Mart says.

And we have 20 food-processing companies that do control most of what Americans eat. So, you know, there’s all this rhetoric about competition and that our economic system is built on competition, but what we’ve actually seen, especially since the 1980s, is that all of the rules and regulations are geared at allowing enormous consolidation. And so, for the food industry, beyond Wal-Mart and the grocery retailers, we have the big food-processing companies. So when a consumer goes into the grocery store, they believe that there’s a lot of diversity and choice, but actually we have 20 food-processing companies that own most of the brands in the grocery store. And unfortunately, 14 of these large food processors also own many of the largest organic brands.

So this kind of concentration is making it very difficult for consumers to have real choices about what they eat. And it’s squeezing all of the profit out of actually producing food, even producing corn and soy. A conventional farmer makes about three to five cents off of a giant box of corn flakes, about three—two to three cents on a giant bag of corn chips, and under a penny on the high-fructose corn syrup in a can of soda.

AMY GOODMAN: Wenonah Hauter, we have less than a minute. Tomorrow your organization Food & Water Watch is putting out "Monsanto: A Corporate Profile." And your book is called Foodopoly. What most surprised you in your years of research over the battle over the future of food and farming in America?

WENONAH HAUTER: I think it’s the inability of farmers to really change what they grow because of their investment in their equipment, because of the lack of a fair marketplace, because of the adverse weather in large parts of this country, where it’s difficult to compete with California. And I think it’s also the impact of the so-called "free trade" agreements on our food system and the offshoring of food production and the impact that’s had on consumers and on farming in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. Her recent book, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America. We will link to your new report that’s coming out tomorrow, "Monsanto: A Corporate Profile."

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