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NewsNotes, May-June 2010
Vol. 35 No. 3


Food security: Time to end agribusinesses’ power

The following article is slightly adapted from part one of this piece written by Siena Chrisman, Networks and Outreach Coordinator, World Hunger Year (WHYHunger).

There are two million farmers and 300 million consumers in the U.S. Standing in the middle are a handful of corporations who control just about everything that happens to our food between the farm and our plate -- how much it costs, how it’s grown, where it comes from, what’s in it, and who sells it. Most of what probably matters to you about why food isn’t healthier, safer, tastier, or all around better is affected by that narrow bottleneck of power between producers and consumers.

Standard economics holds that if the top four companies in any industry control over 50 percent of the market, that industry is no longer freely competitive. Right now, the top four companies control 85 percent of the nation’s beef, 70 percent of pork, and 60 percent of the nation’s poultry. Three corporations process over 70 percent of the nation’s soy. Just one company controls 40 percent of our milk supply, and Monsanto holds patents on 80 percent of corn seed. Our food system has become one of the least competitive sectors of the marketplace.

Fair markets are supposed to be protected by federal antitrust laws, which prohibit corporations from anticompetitive behavior such as collusion, excessive mergers, and predatory conduct like price-fixing. In reality, last year’s near-collapse of the world financial markets made it clear that federal laws don’t always work to curb corporate power. Indeed, the world food crisis, in the headlines just before the financial crisis hit, spotlighted the level of concentrated power of the world’s biggest agribusinesses: in the winter of 2007-08, the same period that saw lengthening lines at food pantries, tough times for farmers, and populist rebellions around the world protesting skyrocketing food prices, the world’s three largest grain producers reported profit increases ranging from 67 percent to 86 percent.

The world food crisis is out of the headlines, but it is clear that there is a growing crisis over who controls our food. The U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis [of which the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns is a founding member] is a broad-based alliance working to promote real solutions to fix the broken food system. As part of its unifying theme of ending poverty by rebuilding local food economies, the Working Group has identified corporate control of the food system to be a primary barrier to building just, prosperous, community-based food economies.

We now have an unprecedented opportunity to speak out against corporate control. The Justice Department and Department of Agriculture are conducting an investigation this year into the issue of corporate concentration in the food system. They have scheduled five public listening sessions around the country -- the first was on March 12 near Des Moines—and they are accepting public comments on how corporate concentration affects all of us.

The U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis commends the government for initiating these investigations and sincerely hopes the administration will use this opportunity to address decades of lax enforcement of antitrust regulations and restore fairness to the marketplace. This is also a critical moment for all of us to stay informed and take action -- you can be sure that agribusiness will put up a fight to maintain the status quo, and so we all must be prepared to speak out loudly in favor of a fair and democratic food system.

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