Too Big to Be Fair: Foodopoly (A Book Review)

It was surely the first time squirtable cheese and Ritz crackers were served at the James Beard House.

Tuesday evening, the James Beard Foundation – famous for its focus on fine dining – hosted a book release party for Wenonah Hauter, executive director of DC-based watchdog group Food & Water Watch and author of the new book, Foodopoly. The second collaboration between the two organizations – the first was a unique event where New York City’s Chef Kerry Heffernan prepared a series of dishes featuring invasive species of seafood – Hauter’s book launch drew high-profile good food advocates, including nutritionist Marion Nestle (who announced that Foodopoly will serve as the “bible” for her upcoming Food Advocacy course at NYU), reporter and author Fred Kaufman, TEDx Manhattan organizer Diane Hatz and others, all rubbing elbows amongst a performance of sorts: suit-clad purveyors of agribiz assured attendees that those cheese and crackers we not too bad for you, other actors offered small doses of candy antibiotics and “scientists” in lab coats offered test tubes of high fructose corn syrup, all to illustrate the problems created by an increasingly consolidated food system. Luckily, the highly talented Mary Cleaver, perhaps (but probably not really) New York City’s least famous green caterer, was on hand with more appealing appetizers.

I first met Wenonah in 2007 (GRACE has worked with Food & Water Watch on some projects over the years) and have always admired her, but Foodopoly crystallizes what interests me most about her work: the deep sense of fairness that informs it. The book begins with a look back, beginning around the last half of the nineteenth century, when farmers – a much greater segment of the population at that time – became a "dynamic political force" as their collective wealth plummeted, and moves up through the Obama administration's impotent 2010 antitrust investigations, with stops at key moments in the history of agriculture: the formation of the Committee for Economic Development; the implementation (and subsequent dismantling) of parity programs, including strategic grain reserves; the 1953 appointment of ideologue Ezra Benson as secretary of agriculture and that of his more infamous protege, Earl "Get Big or Get Out" Butz (1971); the farm debt crisis of the 1980s; the Clinton-administration's rush toward globalization through NAFTA and the WTO; the rapid approval and adoption of genetic engineering practices and more.

Hauter goes on to explain each major sector of food production (and for this alone, Foodopoly deserves an A-list spot on any foodie’s bookshelf). In each of these chapters, the scenery changes but the plot remains the same. In the various arms of the meat industry, in biotech, in vegetable production and even organics, extreme concentration of power in the hands of a few huge companies has enormous negative impact on the way we produce and consume food, at great cost to society, especially when we account for hidden costs in public health and environmental impacts.

For the uninitiated, Hauter breaks down the complex nature of our food system and the issue of consolidated power. Whereas oversimplified caricatures of industrial producers paint a picture of individual farmers seeking to ramp up production for the sake of profits, Hauter explains how vertical integration and extreme consolidation have tied the hands of not only farmers but also other small and mid-size business owners along the supply chain. For example, she illustrates concepts like captive supply (a hallmark of a monopolized market, captive supply arrangements allow large companies to use the producer’s supplies to maximize their own profits – in the case of cattle, meatpackers contract with producers to deliver at some future date, and often the agreements allow the meatpackers to lower the price on delivery), which rules supreme in the beef industry:

These [smaller-scale] cattle producers receive lower prices than they might get at auctions and receive worse terms than a more favored supplier. The meatpacker often manipulates the price, since it is dominant in both buying and selling. Captive supply arrangements also favor some producers with special premium prices and terms. They are often the giant feedlots that can provide many heads. This disadvantages smaller sellers, who must rely on the cash market that meatpackers dominate. And these arrangements are confidential, creating a market that is so opaque that one supplier has no idea what prices others are receiving.

Over and over, Hauter hammers home the point that the gross monopolization of the food system is the root of its problems, but she’s not being redundant – it’s just that the same is true throughout the food system. With concentrated market power in the hands of so few (four companies control 80 percent of the cattle market, four companies own 66 percent of the pork market, four companies own 58 percent of the poultry market and so on – with JBS and Tyson in this top four in all three markets) an hourglass-shaped system is created, with those companies able to exert pressure on both food producers and consumers. When prices drop for farmers, the savings are never passed along to the consumer and likewise, price spikes don’t translate to profits for farmers. Consumers and farmers alike are also left with the public health and environmental damage caused by large-scale intensive livestock agriculture, which creates massive amounts of concentrated waste, as evidenced by the rapid rise of poultry CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).

For instance, layer hens can produce as much manure as the sewage generated in medium-size cities in the counties where the poultry farms are concentrated. The 13.8 million layer hens in Mercer County, Ohio, produce as much untreated waste as the entire population of greater Dallas-Fort Worth, as do the 20.1 million broiler chickens on factory farms in Shelby County, Texas. The 7.7 million layers in Sioux City, Iowa, produce as much manure as all the sewage in Seattle. And the 17.5 million broilers in Franklin County, Georgia, produce as much waste as the greater Philadelphia metro area.

And of course, producers and consumers are not the only ones whose choices are limited by this setup – as these megamultinationals grow in power, they exert it upon lawmakers, who in turn make it easier for the companies to prosper through toothless or nonexistent legislation and failure to implement existing rules. Increasingly, industry calls for – and is granted – the right to regulate itself. Sometimes, laws are passed that are just tough enough to put a lot of smaller scale producers out of the business, leading to even more consolidation.

But all is not lost, at least not yet. And even if it’s not going to save the world, you can keep shopping at the farmers’ market! In fact, you will need the sustenance to fight the good fight. In a final chapter called “The Way Forward,” Hauter offers specific policy recommendations across the food system, from fair markets to organic standards to genetic engineering to food advertising. This chapter is a call to arms for anyone who is seeking to increase access to high quality food, grown – and marketed – fairly.

The San Francisco Gate called the book “politically brave” and it truly is. It takes great courage to speak truth to power, and Wenonah Hauter has got it in spades. Foodopoly is a compelling read and a rock-solid resource for anyone trying to figure out how we went from a nation of healthy farmers to a fast food nation, and how we might be able – with hard work – to get home again.


Originally published at Ecocentric .