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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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Congress came in with temporary emergency payments in 1998 and by 2002, those were permanent. That's the birth of the subsidy system that we see today and this was a big boon for all of those companies that benefit from commodity prices. The overproduction made money for the grain traders and the meat industry. In fact, factory farms spiraled really big during this period. 

The average small and mid-size farmer today makes just over $19,000 and some of that is from the government payments. These people are hardly making a killing. There are 115,000 very large farms that are obviously making more. This isn't a system that I'm defending. My mother used to say, don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we get rid of the subsidy system without reforming the market, we are going to lose all these farms that are just barely hanging on because all of the consolidation means there is no marketplace for farmers to sell into, whether they are livestock commodities or really even for organic producers.

TL: Do you think reforming subsidies should even be a major issue of food organizations?

WH: I think that the focus should be on what we need to do to actually fix the food system. That is both creating the marketplace, creating the infrastructure for this reformed system and we should restore some of the programs that actually kept overproduction from happening.  

It doesn't really make sense that we don't have grain reserve. We have an oil reserve. Why wouldn't we have a grain reserve? We should be taking land, marginal land out of production. I always fail to understand why a lot of the environmentalists haven't been able to get behind the idea of trying to reestablish some of the programs that work, but also dealing with this monopolization of things that there is really no place for farmers to actually sell into.

TL: You mentioned that your impetus for this book was having to deal with people talking about food being so expensive and organic food being for wealthy people. How do we get beyond that issue?

WH: Well, I think we have to start dealing with some of the real issues around the economic system and actually get to the anti-trust issue. Our economic system is built on the idea that there is competition and all public policy is directed at taking care of the competition and in fact, promoting mergers and acquisitions. We are about to have another couple of big mergers, JBS, the biggest meat company in the world, second largest in the U.S. is about to acquire the second largest meat company in Canada. ConAgra, one of the biggest processed food companies is about to absorb one of their competitors, Ralcorp. Nobody knows the name Ralcorp but they are one of the largest store-brand processed food companies.  

There is no evidence that there is going to be anything going down to the FDA. It looks like it's going to move right on through. That's why I think we have to start talking about these issues.

TL: It seems like a lot of it just comes down to money and politics and the corporations that are writing the laws.

WH: It does. It definitely speaks to our legalized system of bribery. These are issues that have to be dealt with in coalition. 

TL: Without healthy small and mid-sized farms we really stand to lose the heart of rural America. What’s the value of protecting it? What happens to our country without that?

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