Note: Having fallen behind on blog posts and listings of resources, I’ll try to catch up beginning with our October 7, 2013, interview with Wenonah Hauter.
Wenonah Hauter is author of Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America. She is also Executive Director of FoodandWaterWatch.org.
Hauter’s dedicated her book to the family farmer. “It’s very hard for farmers to actually make a living every year because farm policy has been directed at the users of farm products and those are the large food processing companies,” she said. “We have 20 food processing companies that control about 60 percent of the brands in the grocery stores. They want really, really cheap farm products. So a lot of our policies over the years have been weakened and they now benefit these very large companies at the expense of farmers.”
Hauter continued, “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own statistics, a mid-size farmer makes about $19,300 take home pay every year.” Of course, this is despite their huge investments in equipment, seed, fertilizer, livestock and feed. Farmers also assume a great deal of risk, since they are at the mercy of the weather.
“I think consumers don’t necessarily get the foods that are the best for them because of all of the advertising. And the deck is kind of stacked because of these federal policies,” she said.
Asked to give a quick portrait of what the food industry actually looks like, Hauter responded, “Let me say that we did have farm policy that worked for farmers in the 30s and 40s during the New Deal. Then over the next 30 years, those policies from the 1940s that kept overproduction from happening…things like a grain reserve and supply management…those policies were deregulated.”
“In the 1980s, under the Reagan administration, we saw our anti-trust laws basically eviscerated and narrowed,” she continued. “What happened is that companies began this flurry of mergers and acquisitions that have lasted all the way up until today. And what happens when companies get very, very large? They get much wealthier. That’s when we began to see companies have enormous influence over elections and federal policy. I would say it really was the beginning of legalized bribery for our political system.”
“These companies had a lot of influence over the trade negotiations that were taking place under the Clinton administration in the mid 1990s,” said Hauter. “So what Ronald Reagan began, Bill Clinton finished. In fact, Cargill, the giant grain company put together a hundred company coalition that wrote the trade policies that relate to food. And then our farm policy was completely deregulated to get in line with trade policy.”
“That means, today, 50 percent of our food and 20 percent of our vegetables are produced overseas,” Hauter declared. “We have companies like Walmart that have become enormously powerful. They control 50 percent overall and in many communities they have 70 to 90 percent of the market. One out of every three grocery dollars goes to Walmart. They’re a company that has so much power over the food system that they figured out how to suck the profit from the ground up. As a result, the Walmart heirs have as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of Americans.”
Asked if there has been a deliberate policy to get small farmers off the farm, Hauter replied, “That’s right. There was a federal policy to depopulate the rural areas and moving young men into urban areas to be cheap labor in factories. Over a number of decades it changed farming and I would say our society, as well.”
“What has happened to our food system needs to be a call to action to become re-engaged in politics,” she said.
“I’ve been involved in organic agriculture for 3 decades,” Hauter stated. “We had this vision of organic food being healthy for the soil, healthy for people and healthy for rural economies. But what’s happened is there’s 20 giant food processing companies, 14 of them own the largest organic brands. Now these large companies are lobbying to weaken the organic standards.”
“The farmer gets a small piece of the pie and they can only be profitable if they have a very large amount of acreage. That’s true whether you’re a grain farmer or you’re growing peaches.”
Hauter acknowledged that many of the same problems exist in the meat industry.
“Production of meat is very consolidated,” she said. “There are only a few companies so they are able to get these products very cheaply because farmers have no other market for the animals. The companies have control over livestock growers. They have recently been able to lobby to allow poultry to be slaughtered at the rate of 175 birds per minute. Meanwhile the contract grower who has the chicken warehouse with 100,000 to 300,000 birds in it, they make on average $12,000 to $15,000 a year.”
“I think that pretty well sums up the state of our meat production,” Hauter declared.
Nevertheless, Hauter is still hopeful. “After years of campaigning to get arsenic out of chicken feed, the FDA agreed that we should not have arsenic in chicken feed. It’s a nuts and bolts battle that we’re in and I think we can’t lose hope. I think we have to have the long vision. Look at how many years it took for the civil rights movement to make progress. Look at how many years Look at how many years it took to get the 8 hour workday, That was 100 years of organizing,” she said. ”We need to urge everyone to get involved,” she concluded.
For more information, listen to the entire podcast and pick up her book.