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THIRD WORLD NETWORK INFORMATION SERVICE ON SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE

Dear Friends and Colleagues

Democratizing an Increasingly Concentrated Food System

This paper reports on the current state of concentration in the food system in the United States and globally. Vertical, horizontal, and backward integration of the food system is happening across all sectors in the food system from local to global levels. Just a few companies dominate almost all aspects of food production. The social and ecological risks associated with our current agrifood system – rising levels of food insecurity and hunger, ecological degradation – are directly related to who has the power to make decisions in food and agriculture. These decisions have increasingly migrated from a more community or public arena into the realm of private decision-making that largely involves those within the biggest firms. Mergers and acquisitions are done to accumulate and protect power.

This consolidation has resulted in a particular set of power relationships that have significant negative impacts on farmers and those who are systemically exploited based on race, gender, queer identity, ethnicity, or nationality. Agrifood consolidation reduces farmer autonomy and redistributes costs and benefits across the food chain, squeezing farmer incomes. Farm workers are exploited in dangerous and precarious employment conditions. Farmland is degraded from extensive monocropping and chemical inputs. Consumers are left navigating disrupted food supply, deceptive marketing, and limited choices on the grocery shelves.

Without a rebalancing of economic and political power within the global food system, humanity confronts a crisis over our very sustenance. Because political democracy rests on economic democracy and vice versa, our focus in scholarship, praxis and policy must be on democratizing the agrifood system at local, state, regional and national scales. Working together, policy-makers, farmers, workers and communities need to fashion alternatives and policies that can help to curb monopolistic tendencies in the agrifood system, to shine a racial lens in scholarship on agrifood system power and consolidation, to prioritize resilience and redundancy, to rethink core assumptions such as efficiency and property rights, and to encourage the development of alternative production and consumption arrangements.

With best wishes,

Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister
10400 Penang
Malaysia
Email: twn@twnetwork.org
Websites: http://www.twn.my/and http://www.biosafety-info.net/
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THE FOOD SYSTEM: CONCENTRATION AND ITS IMPACTS

A Special Report to the Family Farm Action Alliance
by Mary K. Hendrickson, Philip H. Howard, Emily M. Miller and Douglas H. Constance
19 Nov 2020
https://farmactionalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Hendrickson-et-al.-2020.-Concentration-and-Its-Impacts-FINAL.pdf

[EXCERPTS ONLY]

Highlights

  • Consolidation is happening across all sectors in the food system, at the national and global levels, and has resulted in a particular set of power relationships. This has resulted in numerous negative impacts on farmers, workers and their communities as well as consumers, who have experienced higher prices and less innovation.
  • These power relationships impact our food system democracy and are particularly concerning for marginalized voices and communities.
  • Crop acreage is consolidating in larger farms, while the sales midpoint for livestock has starkly increased between 1987-2017. For hogs, the midpoint of sales has increased from 1,200 to 51,300 and in dairy, the herd size has gone from 80 to 1,300 cows.
  • New processes of integration are occurring. In U.S. pork production, large pork producers own processors and grain elevators, while supermarket behemoths Walmart and Costco are using backward integration in dairy, beef and chicken. Kroger continues its strategy of backward integration in dairy and is supplying competing retailers. In addition, asset management firms are increasing their investments in food and agriculture, potentially reducing competition via common ownership of most of the leading firms in a number of industries.
  • In a consolidated system, farmers, workers and the environment are interconnected, meaning that when problems hit one part, they quickly engulf others. For meatpacking, the coronavirus hit workers, and the human tragedy of over 40,000 workers with COVID-19 (189 deaths) quickly became a farm and environmental disaster. Besides the financial hit for farmers who may have euthanized between 300,000 to 800,000 hogs and 2 million chickens, the waste of the embodied resources (28,500 tons of pork, .02% of the 2018-2019 corn crop) is stunning. The inability to control the drift of the herbicide dicamba has divided communities, damaged livelihoods and ecologies, and illuminated the inability of agencies to regulate dominant firms.
  • Agrifood consolidation reduces farmer autonomy and redistributes costs and benefits across the food chain, squeezing farmer incomes. In 2018, farmers whose primary occupation was farming but with sales of less than $350,000 had a median net income of -$1,524. An agriculture system without people has depopulated rural communities causing a collapse in social relationships. Communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of exposure to excessive pesticide use or large animal confinement operations.
  • Consolidation obscures ownership to the point that farmers and consumers frequently have far fewer options in the market than it appears. For instance, Anheuser-Busch InBev (Belgium) has acquired 17 formerly independent craft breweries since 2011, although these ties are not indicated on the product labels. Seed companies label the same seeds under multiple brands while products from a single processing plant may be sold under as many as 40 different brands.
  • Because political democracy rests on economic democracy and vice versa, our laser focus in scholarship, praxis and policy must be on democratizing the agrifood system at local, state, regional and national scales. Working together, policy-makers, farmers, workers and communities need to fashion alternatives and policies that can help to curb monopolistic tendencies in the agrifood system, to shine a racial lens in scholarship on agrifood system power and consolidation, to prioritize resilience and redundancy, to rethink core assumptions such as efficiency and property rights, and to encourage the development of alternative production and consumption arrangements.

[….]

Possibilities for Democratizing the Food System

Our aim in this report was to document current conditions of consolidation within the agrifood system and to frame the social and ecological consequences of such a system. We are concerned that the relationships of power currently exhibited within the agrifood system have significant negative impacts on farmer livelihoods and autonomy, particularly for less powerful members of society, especially those who are systemically discriminated against and exploited based on race, gender, queer identity, ethnicity, or nationality. Centralizing food system decisions about what is produced, where, how and by whom damages farmers’ abilities to treat their farms as specific agroecosystems and constrains their choices by determining what they can produce for what markets. In response to continued consolidation in agrifood, rural communities in some agricultural areas have depopulated, collapsing social relationships, while in others, relationships, livelihoods and property have been damaged by the choices of some farmers caught in a treadmill of monocropping. Vulnerable workers have been sacrificed to injury and illness, and serious questions arise about the social and ecological resilience of such systems in the face of climate change and societal turmoil.

At the heart of this analysis is a focus on power – both economic and political. Ultimately American political democracy rests on economic democracy and vice versa (Wu 2018). Thus, our laser focus in scholarship, praxis and policy must be on democratizing the agrifood system through a multitude of strategies at local, state, regional and national scales. What would democratizing the food system look like? We already see a plethora of emerging alternatives from Community Supported Agriculture farms that intimately share risks and rewards with consumers to farmer cooperatives, urban agriculture farms, garden-based education, commons-based land ownership, fair trade or building values-based value chains that serve local and regional food systems. All of these in some way are attempting to reshape relationships of power within the food system. Full spectrums of innovations must be encouraged without cooptation or blocking by those whose power may be relatively diminished. This will only be achieved with an accountable, and truly democratic government, which has yet to be fully realized.

What is missing is analysis and action on policy that can be immediately deployed to reshape power relationships in agriculture and food. It is not our intent –nor our expertise –to offer fully formed policy solutions here. Rather we believe that democratizing food and agriculture will take policy-makers, farmers, workers and communities working together to fashion alternatives and policies that can help to:

1) Curb and prevent monopolistic tendencies in agrifood systems within all sectors and at all scales through diverse policy instruments from contract to competition law, including all titles of the Farm Bill.

2) Shine a racial lens in scholarship on agrifood system power and consolidation that highlight the myriad ways that economic power has often been built within and upon other relationships of power, providing new insights into potential remedies.

3) Adopt a stance prioritizing resilience and redundancy in business arrangements as well as policies.

4) Rethink core assumptions such as efficiency and property rights in ways that acknowledge their social and ecological consequences.

5) Encourage the development of alternative production and consumption arrangements that root producers and consumers in place, offer producers and consumers more choices at different scales, afford more opportunities for communities to develop self-reliance, and reduce society’s dependence on dominant agrifood firms.

6) Rethink what kinds of crops, livestock and even sectors of the food system are subsidized, and how they are subsidized, in a transparent iterative process that allows citizens to truly weigh their benefits and consequences.

To transform our agrifood system from one that is monopolized and brittle to one that is democratic, equitable, ecological and resilient will take many solutions and experiments across all scales and sectors of food production and consumption. We hope that we have contributed to this process by providing a framework for seeing and understanding the social and economic organization of the agrifood system.

 


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