How do profit and power affect our food system?

Aside

In my introduction post, I discussed the basic definition of a food system and some preliminary ideas for how to move towards one that is more sustainable and healthy. Now, I would like to explore the current system and stakeholders that produce, distribute, and sell our food.

Our country has not always used industrial farms, monoculture, and genetically modified seeds in order to feed the country. The classic idea of a farm with one farmer, a few acres, some chickens and cows, is becoming harder and harder to come by. The shift began once New Deal programs, aimed to keep crop prices fair for farmers, started to be dismantled by agribusiness leaders (Hauter, 2012). They wanted fewer farmers in order to create a cheap labor pool for industry (Hauter, 2012). Business leaders began to notice the potential profits in commodity crops that could be shipped, stored, and used in foods with long shelf lives (Hauter, 2012). In addition, large farms can integrate with large companies. This standardizes and mechanizes the system of production and distribution and makes it more profitable (Hauter, 2012).

Through policies put in place by stakeholder groups, such as the Committee for Economic Development (CED), it became harder for farmers to earn a living wage; they told farmers to “get big or get out” (Hauter, 2012, p. 23). From 1950 to 1970, the farm population declined by about 55 percent (Hauter, 2012). Feeling the pressure from agriculture policy makers, farmers started to invest in expanding operations and by 1973, 19 percent of farms were producing 78 percent of U.S. crops (Hauter, 2013).

This pattern continues because small and medium-sized farms cannot keep up with the low crop prices with the high land, seed, and fuel prices (Hauter, 2012). Food retail has consolidated so that giants such as Walmart, Kroger, Costco, and Safeway now control more than half of all grocery sales (Hauter, 2012). They can then control the prices for the largest suppliers of produce and they require year-round produce in large quantities. This is why you see a majority of fruits coming from California, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil (Hauter, 2012). This business threatens American farmers that rely on seasons to grow their food.

When large corporations dictate the food supply, profits take precedence over sustainability, food and farmers. Corporations have the political clout to shift agricultural policies from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Monoculture has become the norm. Growing a single crop on at a large scale on one plot of land requires chemical inputs that degrade the soil and environment (Hauter, 2012). Low commodity prices maximize profit for food industry because the lack of regulation allows them to pay farmers less for their crops than the price to produce it (Ghosh & Tomlinson, 2011)

Image

Screenshot from “A Place at the Table” [Documentary].

Everyone is a stakeholder in the food system. Unfortunately, only a small group of companies have the power to fundamentally shift they way we farm and eat. We do not eat large quantities of salt, refined grains, and sugar because those are the cheapest foods; we eat them because corporate food industries use the cheapest, easiest ingredients that benefit them (Ghosh & Tomlinson, 2011). The most visible result is factory farmed animals. Deregulation causes extensive cuts to humane standards.

The partnership between agribusiness and the corporate food industry has left out family farmers. Twelve percent of U.S. farms are large-scale industrial operations but these make up 88 percent of farm production (Hauter, 2012). Small farms’ diverse products and small-scale production do not fit into their frame of business: low prices, few regulations, and constant distribution. This system is not sustainable because we need land and farmers in order to have food. The current agricultural policy benefits farming techniques that deplete our already dwindling soil, water, and fuel resources. Businesses cannot put profit first without sacrificing quality of products and the health of people and ecosystems. In the next post, I will explore how this system directly affects consumers.

Colicchio, T., Goldman, J., Harrington, R., Skoll, J., Weyermann, D., Weiss-Lurie, C., Lurie, J. (Producers) & Jacobson, K. & Silverbush, L. (Directors). (2013). A Place at the Table [Documentary]. United States: Participant Media.

Hauter, W. (2012). Foodopoly: The battle over the future of food and farming in America. New York, NY: The New Press.

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