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'Foodopoly:' Exposing the Handful of Corporations That Control Our Food System From Seed to Dinner Plate

Wenonah Hauter's new book, "Foodopoly," delves deep into the history of the food system and how we can fix it.

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But despite my firsthand knowledge of and appreciation for the immense benefits of CSAs and farmers' markets, they are only a small part of the fix for our dysfunctional food system. Food hubs, which aggregate and distribute local food, are beneficial for participating farmers and the purchasing food establishment. But, so far, they must be subsidized by nonprofits or local governments because they are not self-sustaining. We must delve deeper into the history of the food system to have the knowledge to fix it. I decided to write this book because understanding the heartbreaking story of how we got here is not only fascinating but necessary for creating the road map for changing the way we eat.

The food system is in a crisis because of the way that food is produced and the consolidation and organization of the industry itself. Solving it means we must move beyond the focus on consumer choice to examine the corporate, scientific, industrial, and political structures that support an unhealthy system. Combating this is going to take more than personal choice and voting with our forks -- it's going to take old-fashioned political activism. This book aims to show what the problem is and why we must do much more than create food hubs or find more opportunities for farmers to sell directly to consumers. We must address head-on the “foodopoly” -- the handful of corporations that control our food system from seeds to dinner plates.

While the rhetoric in our nation is all about competition and the free market, public policy is geared toward enabling a small cabal of companies to control every aspect of our food system. Today, twenty food corporations produce most of the food eaten by Americans, even organic brands. Four large chains, including Walmart, control more than half of all grocery store sales. One company dominates the organic grocery industry, and one distribution company has a stranglehold on getting organic products into communities around the country.

Further, science has been allowed to run amok; the biotechnology industry has become so powerful that it can literally buy public policy. Scientists have been allowed to move forward without adequate regulation, and they are now manipulating the genomes of all living things-microorganisms, seeds, fish, and animals. This has enabled corporations to gain control over the basic building blocks of life, threatening the integrity of our global genetic commons and our collective food security. Biotechnology has moved into the world of science fiction, as scientists actually seek to create life-forms and commercialize them. Reining in and regulating the biotechnology industry is critical to reforming the dysfunctional food system.

These structural flaws are often overlooked by the good-food movement, which focuses on creating an alternative model from the ground up that will eventually overtake the dysfunctional system. However, this approach raises the question: for whom and how many? A look at the most recent statistics on local food illustrates this point. A November 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, using 2008 data (the most recent available), found: “Despite increased production and consumer interest, locally grown food accounts for a small segment of U.S. agriculture. For local foods production to continue to grow, marketing channels and supply chain infrastructure must deepen.”

The study found that levels of direct marketing to consumers are highest in the Northeast, on the West Coast, and in a few isolated urban areas outside these regions. Direct marketing of local foods to consumers at farmers' markets and CSAs, along with local food sales to grocery stores and restaurants, generated $4.8 billion in sales in 2008. This figure is infinitesimal in comparison to the $1,229 trillion in overall sales from grocery stores, convenience stores, food service companies, and restaurants. 

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