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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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According to the USDA, only 5 percent of the farms selling into the local food marketplace are large farms (with over $250,000 in annual sales), but these large farms provided 93 percent of the “local foods” in supermarkets and restaurants. Eighty-one percent of farms selling local food are small, with under $50,000 in annual sales, and 14 percent of farms selling local foods are medium-sized, with $50,000 to $250,000 in sales. The small and medium-sized farms sell nearly three quarters of the direct-to-consumer local foods (both CSAs and farmers' markets) but only 7 percent of the local foods in supermarkets and restaurants. Although the 5,300 large farms averaged $772,000 in local food sales, small farms sold only $7,800 and medium-sized farms sold only $70,000 local foods on average.

Of special significance is the finding that over half of all farms that sell locally are located near metropolitan counties, compared to only a third of all U.S. farms. This illustrates the difficulty that farmers who grow corn, soy, wheat, and other feed or cereal grains for commodity markets have in converting their farming operations to direct sales to consumers. These farmers sell crops that reenter the food system as a component of another food-as a sweetener, an oil, a starch, or as feed for animals. The lack of a local market, a distribution network, or in many cases the infrastructure needed to harvest, aggregate, or process local foods is also a tremendous hindrance to creating an alternative food system.

Look at a map of the large agricultural middle of this nation to understand that the few remaining farmers who grow the millions of acres of corn and soybeans, fencerow to fencerow, do not live where they can sell directly to the consumer. Most farmers don't have nearby affluent urban areas to which to market their crops. They can't switch from commodities to vegetables and fruit even if they had a market, because they have invested in the equipment needed to plant and harvest corn and soy, not lettuce, broccoli, or tomatoes.

Overly simplistic solutions are often put forward by some leaders in the good-food movement that take the focus away from the root causes of the food crisis-deregulation, consolidation, and control of the food supply by a few powerful companies. One of the most prevalent policy solutions put forward as a fix for the dysfunctional system is the elimination of farm subsidies. This silver bullet prescription implies that a few greedy farmers have engineered a farm policy that allows them to live high off the hog on government payments, while small farms languish with no support. Proponents of this response say that if we remove these misapplied subsidies to these few large farms, the system will right itself.

Unfortunately, the good-food movement has been taken in by an oversimplified and distorted analysis of farm data. It is based on a misinterpretation of misleading U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics that greatly exaggerate the number of full-time family farm operations. A close look at the USDA's Census of Agriculture shows that  one third of the 2.2 million entities counted as farms by the agency have sales of under $1,000 and almost two thirds earn under $10,000 a year. These small business ventures are counted even though they are far from being full-time farming operations. In most cases these are rural residences, not farms, and the owners are retired or have significant off-farm income. They have a part-time agriculture-based business as part of their rural lifestyle -- anything from having a vineyard to growing flowers or mushrooms.

Counting these small ventures as farms not only skews the statistics on the number of farms in the United States; it also makes it appear that only a small percentage receive government payments. In reality, we have under a million full-time farms left, and almost all of them, small and large, receive government subsidies. This is not to say that the subsidy system is good policy. Rather that it is a symptom of a broken food production system, not the cause of the problems. If we penalize farmers for policies that the powerful grain traders, food processors, and meat industry have lobbied for, we will never create a sustainable food system. We need midsize farming operations to survive and to be transitioned into a sustainable food system.

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