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A participant holding a sign at the march. Activists from Extinction Rebellion NYC and Animal Rebellion NYC gathered at Foley Square for a nonviolent direct action linking animal justice, climate justice, and racial justice to the current Covid-19 public health crisis that they say the government has terribly mismanaged. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As We're Giving Thanks, Let's Resolve to Change Our Food System for the Better

It's a time of year to reflect not just on what we're grateful for, but how we can make the abundance and blessings go around. Making our food system fairer is part of that.

Our holiday traditions are undoubtedly going to look very different this year. Fewer gatherings, less travel, smaller meals with immediate family. Even so, our holiday tables tell many stories. For many, holiday meals are an opportunity to revisit family recipes, to prepare dishes reflecting our country’s cultural diversity, or to focus on locally grown foods. There is incredible regional distinction and creativity in how we prepare family meals, but this abundance stands in deep tension with a fundamental truth of our food system: that a handful of companies control each step of the food production chain — from the farm to your plate.

Corporate Consolidation Is A Fact Of Life In Our Food System As It’s Currently Designed

What appears to be a huge array of choice at the supermarket is merely an illusion. Here are a few facts about our consolidated food system to consider, not with a sense of guilt, but with a focus on being informed:

Having turkey? Four companies process over half of U.S. turkeys.

Ham? Just three companies control 63% of pork processing.

Two companies process half of U.S. wheat.

The top four winemakers control one-third of the U.S. Market, with E & J Gallo controlling over one quarter of the market alone.

It doesn’t stop there. Behind the thousands of seemingly unique brands available are just a few multinational corporations that control the majority of the food we eat. Are you having pumpkin pie? Libby’s pumpkin puree & Carnation evaporated milk are Nestle brands. Your cranberries are likely marketed under the brand Ocean Spray, but the Ocean Spray brand is actually owned by PepsiCo.

This Stranglehold On The Food Market Hurts Smaller Farmers In A Big Way

Much of your holiday meal is brought to you by a food system firmly in the grips of corporate control. This isn’t just harmful for eaters — it also has devastating impacts on farmers and rural communities.

The farmer who raised the turkey you’re preparing or who grew the wheat that made the flour you’re kneading into dough? That farmer received only 15 cents of each dollar spent at the store. And increasing consolidation is further driving down farmers’ share — even as consumer food costs rise. Take ground beef for example. Over the past two decades, farmers’ share of beef sales declined 8 percent, while the cost of ground beef surged 70 percent. Instead of reaching farmers, these profits are lining the pockets of the handful of corporations that stand between the farmers who grow our food and us as consumers.

And as a result, the farmers who grow our food are literally going into debt to do so. The 2020 net farm income estimate was negative $1,840 — and this was before the COVID pandemic significantly disrupted corporate supply chains, forcing many farmers to cull animals or plow crops under because of a lack of processing capacity. Meanwhile, U.S. farm debt is at an all-time high, and we are losing more than 10,000 farms each year.

The damage is far-reaching. The loss of family farms guts rural communities, and is linked to greater levels of poverty, economic inequality, and out-migration. Small and medium-sized farms, it turns out, are integral to the social and economic welfare of rural communities.

Food Chain Workers Are Caught In Risky Conditions Because Of Corporate Control

Rampant consolidation in our food system also causes significant harm to food chain workers who often risk their lives to put food on our tables, as the pandemic has made shockingly clear. From the farmworkers who pick produce to the workers in slaughterhouses across the country, food chain workers are on the frontlines of the COVID pandemic, often forced to continue working despite enormous risk due to fear of losing their jobs, of company retaliation, or due to a lack of paid sick leave.

Slaughterhouse workers in particular have been sickened with COVID at disproportionate rates, and hundreds have died. Even before the pandemic these workers were exposed to some of the most dangerous working conditions in the country — conditions that favor efficiency over all else, including worker safety, and that are driven by consolidation in the industry.

How We Change The Food System We Have Into One That Works For Everyone

We can fight back. There are policy solutions to this massive problem of consolidation in our food system.

Moratorium on mergers: Big firms buy small firms until they’ve eliminated all of their competition. This results in corporate giants with enormous money, power and influence. Building a better food system requires that we tackle this corporate consolidation head on. The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2019 would initiate a moratorium on large agriculture, food and beverage manufacturing and grocery retail mergers to allow time to assess the impact corporate consolidation has on farmers, workers, consumers and communities. It also recommends improvements to antitrust enforcement, which would have a big impact on anti-competitive behavior.

Protections for contract growers: The Biden Administration must immediately revive a proposed rule to protect farmers from the unfair contracting and marketing practices commonly used by major poultry and meatpacking companies. This was originally proposed in the 2008 Farm Bill, but the meatpacking and poultry industries came out swinging against it, stalling it until Trump Administration Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue finally eliminated the proposed rule entirely in 2018.

Build a better future: We need to build a better food and farm system — one that works for all of us. The coronavirus exposed our food system in crisis. Think back to March and April of 2020 when it was nearly impossible to find meat, flour and other staples in grocery stores due to corporate supply chain disruptions. Local and regional farmers supplied fresh, local staples that large grocery stores couldn’t provide during the first wave of the pandemic — and those lucky enough to have access to local producers saw firsthand that another way is possible. We must build a regionally based food system free of corporate control and factory farms. Federal legislation introduced by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Ro Khanna, the Farm System Reform Act of 2019, lays out the path to get us there. This legislation would ban new and expanding large factory farms and enact a number of market reforms allowing small farmers to compete. It would provide funds for contract growers and other factory farm operators to transition to more sustainable forms of agriculture. In short, it would build a food system that works for consumers and farmers — not for corporations.

We didn’t get here by accident. Our food system has been shaped by corporations’ power and influence and the elected officials who do their bidding. While supporting small farms and locally sourced food is a good start, we cannot shop our way out of this problem. We must take back our political power and build a powerful movement to fight for a food system that prioritizes our interests over corporate profits. We hope the food on your holiday table will inspire you to join us to fight for change.

© 2021 Food & Water Watch

Krissy Kasserman

Krissy Kasserman is the National Factory Farm Campaigner at Food and Water Watch. She works to take our national fight against factory farms to the next level as we battle corporate agriculture and work towards a more sustainable, safer, and equitable food system.

Amanda Claire Starbuck

Amanda Claire Starbuck

Amanda Claire Starbuck is the Senior Food Researcher and Policy Analyst on the Food Team at Food & Water Watch. She previously worked as a Policy Analyst for Citizen Health & Safety at the Center for Effective Government, where she focused on chemical hazards and fracking. Amanda holds a bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy & Religion from the University of North Dakota, and a master’s in Global Environmental Policy from American University.

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