Why, and how, to break the U.S. 'Foodopoly'

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Storrs - posted Tue., Feb. 12, 2013
Wenonah Hauter appeared at the UConn Co-op recently to discuss her book, 'Foodopoly.' Contributed photos. - Contributed Photo

Nestled into an alcove of the UConn Co-op featuring books about animals and the environment, Wenonah Hauter discussed her new book, “Foodopoly.” Hauter's appearance was part of Mansfield's Winter Fun Week, which began on Feb. 7. The book takes aim at what the author calls the real culprit behind America’s current food crisis: “the control of food production by a handful of large corporations - backed by political clout - that prevents farmers from raising healthy crops and limits the choices that people can make in the grocery store,” according to a press release.

“I grew up on a farm,” said Hauter. Life on her parents’ farm “gave me a really deep appreciation of what it means to be a farmer,” she said. Currently, Hauter “owns an organic family farm that provides healthy vegetables to hundreds of families as part of the growing nationwide Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement,” according to a press release. But Hauter has grown to believe that the local food movement is not enough to combat “America’s food crisis and the public health debacle it has created,” she said. “It will take political action to force change.”

Hauter said she’d been thinking about writing a book for a while and was prompted to take action, in part, by hearing people talk about farm subsidies. People think of farmers as “welfare queens, in a sense,” said Hauter. “This is a way to blame farmers for what is actually wrong with our larger food system,” she said.

The current “official” USDA count of farms in the United States is 2.2 million. “That's kind of not true,” said Hauter. In the 1940s, there were between six and eight million farms in the U.S. “Today, we believe there are under a million,” said Hauter. The USDA stats are manipulated to make the situation appear less dire, said Hauter, and include part-time growers making less than $10,000 per year. “Like my neighbor down the road who is retired military with a vineyard,” she said, suggesting that as much as two-thirds of the USDA estimate is comprised of hobby growers.

Hauter said that the number of full-time farmers was currently closer to one million, with 82 percent of those farmers receiving some amount of subsidy. The true culprit is a small number of large food companies “that control most of the brands that you find in the grocery store,” said Hauter. From the cost of your average Pepsi product purchased at the local grocery store, “the farmer gets about two cents,” said Hauter, for the corn syrup that goes into the product. Four giant chains control the retail grocery market in the U.S., she said: WalMart, Costco, Target and Kroger.

The year 1996 was a turning point for American farmers, said Hauter, when the U.S. became part of the World Trade Organization and protections for farmers were eliminated. Who lobbied for these changes? “Companies that use corn and soy for processed food,” said Hauter. The meat and soft drink industries saved billions of dollars in the two years following the changes. “By 1998, the price of corn had decreased by 50 percent,” said Hauter. The price of soy had decreased by 40 percent. There was political pressure from farmers who were no longer able to meet the costs of production. This prompted the beginning of the subsidy system. “So blaming farmers is wrong-minded,” said Hauter.

Huge multinational food producers, like the tobacco industry, are willing to engage in other questionable practices, the author said. Hauter referred to the argument by former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler, laid out in his book, “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.” Like the tobacco industry, processed food producers are willing to go to great lengths to get consumers hooked on their products. Kessler suggests that food companies engage in research to discover the optimal combination of sugars, fats and salt to keep consumers coming back for more.

“Unless we start talking about these issues… we’re not going to be able to make the changes necessary,” said Hauter. Recognizing the effects of large food producers, and taking political action against them, is the only way to improve the quality of food consumed by the average American, and to improve the fate of the American farmer, said Hauter.

There are many ways to get involved. Locally, food labeling is an important issue. “Connecticut is one of the leading states” in demanding labeling for genetically engineered/modified food, said Hauter. Write to your legislators in support of such labeling. Go to http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/campaigns/make-ge-labels-the-law/ for more information. Food and Water Watch also provides information regarding numerous other issues affecting the safety of food and water in the U.S. Pick up a copy of “Foodopoly” at your local bookstore.

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