Concentration and Power in the Food System - Book Review March 17 2018
The pork that Susanna sourced from a local farmer and that Chef Bri turned into mouth-watering Pork Tinga is special. The hogs that were processed for this pork enjoyed life on a small farm rooting around, rolling in the mud, squealing, and just plain being pigs. Knowing that the hogs had a good life and came from a small farm nearby is one of the reasons we choose Back to Basics Kitchen meals. After all, not all hogs have such a life.
To get a picture of pork production in the U.S. today, take a minute to read about Concentration and Power in the Food System by Philip H. Howard. In the book, Howard presents aspects of the U.S. food system, who controls what we eat, and his findings on which firms have become most dominant and how. As Howard explores who controls what we eat in one section, he traces the value chain of soybeans, pork, milk, and leafy greens. Today large processors dominate the U.S. pork industry and increasingly follow the poultry production model. Farmers who choose the “chickenization of pork” model own the land and the buildings. The processors, like Smithfield-Shuanghui and Tyson, own the hogs, feed, and other inputs (such as antibiotics). Chickenized hogs never root around or roll in the mud or do any of the things hogs love to do. They are warehoused their entire lives. Sows lie on their sides day after day and week after week in cages that allow no turning, turning over, or standing. These large processors claim concern for the animals by explaining that this ensures the mother hog cannot roll over and smash her piglets as they suckle.
Although hog production technology had been developed in the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t until banks started granting loans to farmers on the basis of contracts that this industrial model rapidly expanded. Thus it was that between 1992 and 2009, the number of hog producers dropped 70 percent, from over 240,000 to fewer than 72,000. By 2013, U.S. pork slaughtering capacity was controlled by four pork processors: Smithfield-Shuanghui, Tyson, JBS Swift, and Cargill. The four had concentrated 63 percent of pork production.
Why should consumers care about concentration? One reason is that concentration gives dominant firms the ability to damage numerous communities and ecosystems as they relentlessly pursue higher-than-average profits. Concentration also means power to a few mega-corporations that offer fewer choices and less transparency to consumers.
“As industries consolidate, fewer and fewer people have power to make important decisions, such as what is produced, how it is produced, and who has access to these products.” Also, dominant firms are typically controlled by a small board of directors (eleven people on average) with decision-making power in the hands of the chief executive officer (CEO). And in the United States, board members are most often men, of European ethnicity and averaging 60 years of age, who were educated at elite institutions and hold similar conservative worldviews.
Howard believes that concentration in the food system is of more concern than in most other economic sectors. He explores how power garnered by fewer and fewer companies plays out in each major stage of the food system. Of special interest to many might be that the organic food system, originally an alternative to the mainstream, is itself an increasingly consolidated industry.
Howard takes a political economy perspective, which recognizes the high degree of interaction between governmental agencies and private economic organizations. He also draws on the theory of capital as power. This theory attempts to understand capital from the viewpoint of capitalists, especially those who benefit most from the current system: the largest corporations and the wealthiest individuals who are typically major shareholders in these companies.
These corporations quantify their perceived influence through “capitalization.” “Another way of thinking about capitalization is that it’s a quantification of capitalists’ consensus expectations that people will continue to acquiesce to the firm’s power. It therefore measures not just a firm’s capacity to provide goods and services but ‘the power of its owners and directors to shape and reshape politics, society, and culture.’”(Di Muzio, Tim 2013, 6)
In other words, capitalism is a system better understood as a mode of power than as a mode of production. The closest link in the food system to consumers is retailing. This gives companies a gatekeeper role and an accompanying potential to wield enormous power over consumers and suppliers. Changes in judicial interpretation and enforcement of anti-trust laws have opened the door for all kinds of shenanigans, including that companies have become national and international in scope.
Howard’s book isn’t a quick read, but I have found it eye-opening in my attempt to understand what has happened to food over my lifetime. A change that started back in the early 1900s continues to have consequences. Food processors heavily funded home economics courses taught in school. In their benevolence, they promoted canned goods over fresh foods and encouraged households to use new technology to save time spent on chores. As households became dependent on processed foods, guess who increased their profit margins?
Big packaged food companies continue to create more profitable consumption patterns to enhance their power and dominance. These days it’s called deskilling, and they use deskilling to reshape jobs to decrease wages and at the same time reshape socio-cultural practices to increase purchases. Companies have continued to successfully move us far away from self-provisioning as they create ever more dependency upon them and further strip us of our knowledge and abilities. It’s at least encouraging that interest in cooking is gaining popularity alongside sourcing the most nutritious and best prepared meals. (Thank Susanna, Chef Bri, Amy, and the rest of the BBK team for their housemade prepared meals.)
Another tactic used by big corporations is spatial colonization. With this, packaged food firms and also beverage firms move beyond previous limits. They thereby increase their scope of power as they enter new markets, such as in less industrialized countries. Part of this strategy requires creating “pseudodiversity.” Big corporations resist offering real diversity, which would cut into their profits. Instead, they offer very slight variations on existing products as a means to take over larger and larger amounts of shelf space. This allows them to crowd out smaller competitors and prevent new competition from breaking into key retail outlets.
Howard looks in more depth at the most dominant packaged foods and beverages companies and the impact on society and consumer choice as these strategies are used for beer, soymilk, and bagged salads.
I can’t let myself write about deskilling and spatial colonization without encouraging you to “get thee to your farmers’ market and holiday markets; sign up for a CSA that works for you; and patronize local farm stands.” If we want quality fresh produce and animal products, we need to purchase from values-based producers, not from giant profit-based producers. A satiric person-on-the-street opinion in The Onion in 2013 about a recent buyout has a woman saying, “it’s kind of comforting to know everything will be owned by one or two people someday.” Perish the thought, and be aware that concentration will worsen without resistance.
There’s useful, valuable information in this book. One way we can collectively shift purchases away from dominant firms is by uncovering stealth ownership. It’s not easy to determine which company owns what products, but Howard suggests two websites/apps with ownership information: GoodGuide.com and Buycott.com. Other places to look include the brand’s website; a trademark database, such as trademarks.justia.com; and even some web searches using the brand name and keywords such as “acquisition” or “equity stake.” And if you think you know the parent firm, search the company’s website, press releases, annual reports, and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings for acquired brands.
Get creative. Learn where your food comes from and how it’s produced.
Phyllis (Dedicated local food eater and BBK customer)
Vishal Sharma March 12 2020 at 09:09AM
Thank you Phyllis for an excellent analysis of Philp’s book, and for exhortation that folks take matters into their own hands.
“Perish the thought, and be aware that concentration will worsen without resistance.” I agree!! It is not comforting at all to hear that all power will be in the hands of 1-2 companies in nearly every area of life, especially food, so I am glad to hear the movement for food independence is alive and well at Back to Basics Kitchen, and may your tribe increase!