Big Food Must Go: Why We Need to Radically Change the Way We Eat
This is not a problem we can solve by going vegetarian or vegan, or buying organic and fair trade.
Christopher D. Cook
It is no longer news that a few powerful corporations have literally occupied the vast majority of human sustenance. The situation is perilous: nearly all of human food production, seeds, food processing and sales, is run by a handful of for-profit firms which, like any capitalist enterprise, function to maximize profit and gain ever-greater market share and control. The question has become: What do we do about this disastrous alignment of pure profit in something so basic and fundamental to human survival?
It is time — now, not next year — to de-occupy Walmart. And Archer Daniels Midland. And Tyson Foods. And Monsanto. And Cargill. And Kraft Foods. And the other large corporations that decide what ends up on our plates. Take all our money out, public and personal, from our shopping dollars to school district lunch contracts to the corporate subsidies that uphold these firms’ grip on our food supply, and invest it in a new system that’s economically diverse and ecologically sustainable.
These corporations’ stranglehold over food has wreaked havoc on the environment, our health, farmers, workers, and our very future. It is time for an end to Big Food, and a societal shift to something radically different. We all deserve a future where what we eat feeds community and land, instead of eroding soils, polluting water and air, and tossing away small farmers and immigrant workers as if they were balance sheet losers.
“Occupying the food system” has emerged as a rallying cry as activists and movements across the country, from Willie Nelson to more than 60 Occupy groups are turning up the heat on “big food” in nationwide actions today. Across the US, online and offline, thousands will be protesting icons of corporate control over food such as Monsanto and Cargill, and literally occupying vacant lots and tilling long-ignored soils in a mass-scale rejuvenation of community-led food production. (Find out more about the day of action here.)
“We want to ignite a robust conversation about corporate control of our food supply,” says Laurel Sutherlin, communications manager for Rainforest Action Network, a lead organizer in this growing coalition of food system occupiers. “Occupy has opened a national dialogue about inequality and the dangers of surrendering our basic life-support systems over to corporate control.”
The idea that food ought to be spared from the all-consuming machinery of corporate control has gained wide currency, but what does it mean to “occupy” and revamp our food system? Apart from our desire for local heirloom produce and artisanal cheeses, or to save the family farm, what’s wrong with a few corporations controlling our food supply?
“Occupying the food system is about taking it back from the corporations for the communities and for the people,” says Erin Middleton of the California Food and Justice Coalition. “Access to good, healthy, affordable food is a basic human right that has been interfered with in the current capitalistic food system.”
Beyond any aesthetic concerns about local versus multinational, or slow food versus fast food, the well-documented reality is that Big Food has attained phenomenal and destructive power over what we eat — our diets, our health and the planet.
Consider a few quick facts:
- Four corporations, led by Walmart, control more than half of grocery sales. Walmart alone gets more than one quarter of every grocery dollar spent in the U.S.
- Three companies — Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta — own 47 percent of the world’s seeds. And they own 65 percent of the global proprietary maize market.
- Nearly every major commodity — wheat, corn, soy — is controlled by just four corporations.
- Just four corporations control more than 80 percent of all our meat supply.
- According to USDA statistics, America loses more than 17,000 farmers a year — one every half an hour.
This corporate occupation of our food isn’t just unfair and wrong; it’s impractical and destructive. It’s ruining farmers, the land and our future food supply.
This Big Food system produces an astounding 1.3 billion tons of animal waste every year. It sprays half a million tons of toxic pesticides on our food each year. We are literally eating oil, as author Rick Manning has put it: annually 400 gallons of fossil fuel per person, 100 billion gallons a year as a nation. Rivers and streams across America are polluted by this industrial agriculture, which is now a major contributor to climate chaos — and we’re all paying for it.
But at least these corporations feed the world, right? Wrong. Worldwide, more than 850 million people go hungry every day. In the U.S., 48 million people, including 16 million children, do not have a reliable, secure food supply. Twenty percent of families with children are food-insecure.
Why all this hunger amid a global food bounty in which UN Food and Agriculture Organization data show we have far more than enough to feed everyone? Poverty. Unemployment. Underemployment. Here in the U.S., stagnant wages have combined with rising costs for everything to make simply feeding oneself a major economic stressor. We cannot separate “food issues” from economic justice issues. And the corporations that control our food supply are directly to blame.
But at least McDonald’s, Walmart, Safeway, et al. offer us “cheap” food, right? Wrong again. We pay more than $100 billion a year in medical costs due to diet-related diseases from Big Food’s relentless production and marketing of junk “food” and highly processed foods. We pay countless more dollars for injured and maimed workers who risk life and limb daily on the fast-food assembly line; for environmental cleanups from factory farms’ rivers of toxic waste; and we pay roughly $15 billion a year, sometimes more, to subsidize corporate agribusiness commodities like corn and soy — our tax dollars financing unhealthy sweeteners for soda, and fast food, all those burgers and fries that seem so cheap.
Then there is the brutal sweatshop-style labor we eat. All our food today relies on terribly exploited workers, both in the U.S. and abroad. Our daily meals rest on underpaid, impoverished immigrants, tens of thousands of whom are injured each year. We cannot continue to ignore the abuse of people, land and animals by the corporations that claim to feed the world.
We cannot solve this simply by going vegetarian or vegan, or buying organic and fair trade. The very market that has created this Big Food disaster — the market that creates monopolies and monocultures — cannot solve these deep systemic crises. To truly “occupy the food system” we will need nothing less than a fundamental restructuring of the economics and policies that currently enable our corporate food system.
There are great things happening on the good food margins today — local foods movements, more urban agriculture and community gardens, school gardens, small sustainable food companies, victory gardens, even some fairly radical small-scale entrepreneurialism. But we need something much bigger. We need a radical overhaul of our current food and agriculture system — and of how our tax dollars are spent on food.
Here are a few ideas. We must pressure Congress, through education, protest and targeted campaigns, to end agribusiness subsidies and begin spending our money on sustainable healthy foods and farming. Pass a 2012 Farm Bill that not only ends subsidies for corporate agribusiness, but that reinvests public money in an economically diversified, ecologically sustainable and more locally-oriented food system. It can be done. Shift the agribusiness subsidies to fund small and mid-sized organics; subsidize smaller-scale organics, and living-wage jobs in organic farming; create public investments for local and regional sustainable agriculture, both rural and urban; stop all food industry mergers today; and ban corporate representatives from all aspects of government food policymaking-no more corporate lobbyists and advisors deciding our nation’s food, farming, and nutrition policies. No more revolving door between government and agribusiness. Period.
Beyond that, we need to break up the food oligopoly. Reform anti-trust law so these companies can’t control entire food and seed markets. Cargill, for instance, the world’s largest privately held corporation, not only controls a huge portion of the global grain business, but it also has a near monopoly over entire regions of American grain elevators, where farmers sell their crops. For the future of the environment and local economies, we must also redistribute land from corporations and agribusiness to small sustainable farms, and reverse the long trend of huge subsidized landholders buying out the family farm.
A few more ideas: Tax fast food corporations at the point of production (not sale, where it just hurts low-income consumers) and use the money to create sustainable urban farms. Create a federal New Deal for Food that invests in a truly sustainable healthy food system that makes good food accessible to all — reinvesting the dollars we currently throw at agribusiness, into community-driven food production and marketing.
Ultimately, we need to understand that this isn’t just a few bad corporations — this is capitalism doing what it naturally does, exploiting people and land for profit. Even Adam Smith warned of the inherent tendency of capitalism toward ceaseless growth and monopoly power. Whether you’re for revolution or reform, let’s be honest about the system we’re dealing with. Capitalism is unraveling, undermining even its own interests with its tireless demand for more growth, more profits, endless new markets with no protections for local industry, more corporate consolidation and monopoly power over both economics and politics.
Increasingly, activists are making these deeper connections between sustenance and a larger economy. “One of the most important aspects of Occupy the Food System, especially during this time of high unemployment and economic crisis, is rebuilding local economies and creating quality jobs,” Tanya Kerssen of Food First wrote in an email to me. “In many communities where unemployment is high and access to healthy food is limited or nonexistent, the food system is an obvious place to start.”
Kerssen argues that community-based food production can rebuild and sustain more than just food:, “By localizing the production and consumption of food, we can generate employment along the entire value chain (from production to distribution to retail). We can also rebuild our social fabric, address our health crisis, and significantly reduce our carbon footprint.”
Michele Simon, a food policy expert and author of Appetite for Profit, sees the Occupy Big Food actions as “a great opportunity to bring together a rather fragmented good food movement. I’d like to see more connections being made to the industry’s massive marketing machine, especially when it comes to children and the impact on public health, which too often gets left out of the food justice critique.”
But, Simon adds, “I also think we need much more long-term action. Single-day actions here and there won’t cut it when powerful food industry lobbyists are roaming the halls of Congress and state legislatures all over the nation every day of the year. We need to Occupy our political system!”
Indeed, we need to occupy politics, and the economy. Capitalism’s endless need for new markets, new products and new lands and people to exploit is putting our entire planet and future in peril. We must re-socialize food and other life essentials. Food is already socialized, but it’s corporate socialism: the huge subsidies we all pay, directly and indirectly, to uphold agribusiness.
Reclaiming our food system, says Aaron Lehmer of Bay Localize, “must mean reclaiming control of our land, our labor, and our economy from corporate monopolies. Anything less will leave our communities enslaved by special interests, whose primary goal is extracting more and more value from the common good.”
Christopher D. Cook is the author of “Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis” (New Press). He has also written for Harper’s, the Economist, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor. His Web site is www.christopherdcook.com.