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Hate Eating Corporate Food? Democracy Is the Best Recipe

Wenonah Hauter discusses her new book "Foodopoly," a deep dive into our country’s history and our relationships with farmers.

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TL: I thought it was interesting when you mentioned that not everyone can be a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, not everyone can sell direct to consumers. Either they are not close enough to a population center or that's not the kind of crop they are growing. 

WH: Right, and a CSA is not for everybody. We need other ways to get healthy foods into the system, as wonderful as CSAs are, we need smaller grocery retailers.  

TL: Do you think of anti-trust legislation as being one of the primary steps in reforming the food system?

WH: Yes, and I think we need to start by adding it to the agenda and demanding that Congress do a study of the affects of consolidation on the food system in rural communities. The Obama administration just chickened out last year about livestock, the consolidation that's affecting the livestock industry. We need to jumpstart that process and get Washington on the farm bill. That's one of the things I'm hoping to use Foodopoly for. 

TL: You’ve written in the book that farmers shouldn’t be demonized because of our subsidy system — which is part of a much larger broken food system. Can you talk about how farmers survived and flourished before subsidies?

WH: One of the things that happened during the New Deal is that people in rural areas were just really suffering. Part of the New Deal legislation established these programs so that there wouldn't be overproduction because overproduction is the bane of farmers. In fact, after World War I, farmers had suffered terribly because they geared up, produced a lot for Europe during the war and then after the war, all of that production wasn't needed and then prices plummeted.  

The idea was to have government programs that would keep overproduction from happening. There was a reserve program, a grain program that was established so that in times of abundance the grain would be put in this reserve and stored basically on farmers' farms and then during drought and other times, the grain could be used. There were also set-aside programs that actually prevented overproduction and kept ground that is marginal from having crops growing on it, which is actually a very good thing for the environment. These programs were established and it meant that farmers were actually making an income on par with the rest of society -- with people who were from urban areas. This worked really well into World War II and after the war and into the 1950s, but you can imagine that there were economic interests that wanted access to these commodities for below the price of production. 

I explain in Foodopoly that there was this organization put together called Committee for Economic Development and it's really fascinating. They were business leaders who formed this business association to help develop economic and social policies for post-WWII and one of the things that they wanted to do was to make sure that there was enough cheap labor that they could actually “get these boys off the farm” (which is a quote), and they started politically to lobby, to write materials and to chip away at these policies into the 1950s. During the Eisenhower administration they successfully reduced what farmers were paid on par with the rest of society and this continued right up into the 1990s. 

Fast-forward to the debates over the World Trade Organization and NAFTA. Really as the U.S. joined the WTO and got in line with this group for trade policies, one of the things that had to happen was that the farm programs had to be eliminated and in 1996 during the Clinton administration, the last vestiges of the New Deal programs were done away with and that took the government's role out of the market for commodities. That meant that there was immediately terrible overproduction. By 1998 I think corn prices were 50% below what they had been. Soy was something like 40% below and there was real pain and suffering in rural areas and a lot of political pressure.  

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