Mission Local sat down recently at Mission Pie with author Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Food and Water Watch, to talk about her new book investigating agribusiness, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America (The New Press).
Mission Local: Can you tell me about your book and why you decided to write about food and the future of farming?
Wenonah Hauter: Well, [at] Food and Water Watch we have been fighting to change food policy for several years. It became clear to me that people are very confused about what we really need to do to change our food system.
I wanted to write an explanation of how we ended up with a dysfunctional food system, going back into the 1930s, where the modern food policy really began, and following it up through the decades, explaining how we ended up getting here, especially focusing on the 1980s, when antitrust law was eviscerated. We have ended up since that time with monopolies in almost every industry. That is especially true with the food industry, where just a small group of corporations stand between a million farmers and a hundred million consumers. And I wanted to add some of these to the “good food agenda,” because people are [becoming] excited about being locavores.
There is a big food movement in this country, especially here in San Francisco, and there is a lot of interest in trying to grow the food movement from the ground up. And I wanted to make the case that it’s great, it’s a strategy and we need lots of strategies. But we also need systemic changes, and those systemic changes are also necessary for fixing our democracy. My hope is that we can interest people who are moved by food issues to get involved in politics generally, because we need to do more than vote with our fork. We need to vote with our votes, and then once people are elected, we need to make them remain accountable.
ML: Through your research for this book, did you find out anything shocking?
WH: We basically have about 20 food processing companies that control most of the brands in the grocery store. So when consumers go in, it looks like there’s a lot of diversity, a lot of choice, but this small cabal of companies are doing niche marketing under many, many different brand names, and you can peruse the book and see the top 20 brands.
ML: What are a few, just for example?
WH: The top five are PepsiCo, Nestle, Kraft, Tyson and the giant Brazilian meat company called JBS that most people have never heard of but [which] owns brands likes Pilgrim’s Pride and Swift.
So then we have a group of grocery chains that really are the most powerful food companies in the country, because they demand such volume and they have figured out how to suck all of the profit, all the way up from the farm up the distribution chain, into their coffers. Walmart, of course, is the largest one. One out of three grocery dollars goes to Walmart, and they have, over about the last 15 years, figured out how to basically get their suppliers to take over all of the responsibilities that grocery stores once had, and to pay many of the costs that it takes to get these products to the grocery store. And so that’s had a shocking effect on our food system.
Here in California, in the Central Valley, where lots of the fruits and vegetables come from, only the largest shippers and packers can really be profitable, and the smaller growers are either bought out or have consolidated, because when a store like Walmart needs volume, they don’t want to deal with a lot of medium-sized companies. They want to deal with, if you are talking about meat, the largest meat packers, and so that’s had a dramatic effect on restructuring our food system.
ML: And you came to Mission Pie today because you felt that the Mission District has an investment in a local movement, or just has an interesting food scene?
WH: Yeah, I think there is an interesting food scene. We’ve done some other events in the Bay Area and there is a lot of excitement about food, a lot of interest in “Foodopoly.” We very much support Mission Pie’s vision and thought it was an excellent community to come and do an event in, because there is a lot of excitement and a lot of interest in becoming more politically active here.
ML: What is it about Mission Pie’s viewpoint that you are particularly interested in?
WH: Well, I think the very fact that they don’t have Wi-Fi here and they want people to come and have conversation, eating a very high-quality product, that they use their space for different events to educate and mobilize people, just points to the kind of business that really enriches a community.