Skip

Big Food Makes Big Finance Look Like Amateurs
October 17, 2011 7:54 AM   Subscribe

"Agribusiness is concentrated to a point that would make a Wall Street master of the universe blush. Vast globe-spanning corporations, many of them US-based, dominate the industry." Tom Philpott, writing in Mother Jones, says Big Food makes Big Finance look like amateurs
posted by davidjmcgee (30 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
If you want a company which is an absolute master of rent-seeking and regulatory capture, then ADM is your baby.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:21 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


This (like Big Finance and Big Pharma and pretty much everything else with 'Big' in front of it) is the problem with Profit Motive: given any but the shortest possible tether, it will destroy anything and everything around it in an effort to boost the Bottom Line.

In my opinion, it was a glaring oversight that the constitution made no mention of protecting the people from corporate concerns; it was obvious enough even then that the only thing that would prevent for-profit institutions from taking over the government would be same 'common defense' that prevent other countries from doing so.
posted by Mooski at 8:26 AM on October 17, 2011 [10 favorites]


Ever since watching this segment from The Corporation, I can't hear the name Monsanto without shuddering. They are really fucking evil--the coopting of government agencies and the threats to journalists seem like something out of a dystopian fantasy, but unfortunately it's real.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:32 AM on October 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


"Three companies process more than 70 percent of beef in the US; four slaughter and pack more than 58 percent of our pork and chicken."

A lot of people want grass-fed meat, but there is a kink in the supply chain and it's slaughterhouses. In the 1980s the government started regulating them in a way that required high-capital equipment and output, all in the name of "safety." It's kind of a joke...slaughtering thousands of cows an hour is supposed to be safer? It's worse for the workers and the animals.

Almost all the small and medium-sized slaughterhouses closed. If you are a small farmer raising 1-500 animals on pasture, your options for getting your meat to market are pretty small. There are waiting lists at most slaughterhouses catering to small farmers.

A new slaughterhouse that caters towards small farmers is a rare thing, but a few have opened in the past years, including some innovative projects.

I know some food justice folks were calling for the government to start antitrust proceedings on the meat packing business, but as a small farmer myself I'd rather have regulatory reform (separate set of regulations appropriate for small, low-capital operations) and the end of government subsidies towards big business. Allowing these slaughterhouses to pollute things they don't own for free is also a form of subsidy.
posted by melissam at 8:43 AM on October 17, 2011 [8 favorites]




Keep this article in mind the next time some talking head from some agri-corp sheds crocodile tears for "the family farm."
posted by clvrmnky at 8:50 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


OCCUPY SHOP RITE!
posted by spicynuts at 8:58 AM on October 17, 2011



OCCUPY SHOP RITE!

YES WE CAN CAN.
posted by The Whelk at 8:59 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


A lot of people want grass-fed meat, but there is a kink in the supply chain and it's slaughterhouses. In the 1980s the government started regulating them in a way that required high-capital equipment and output, all in the name of "safety."

No, what happened, most likely, is that some people had genuine political interest in improving safety but their political momentum got captured by industry lobbyists representing the big money who recognized an opportunity to improve their position in the market by exploiting whatever political momentum was behind the new safety regs.

SOP on the big money side is to take genuine, good populist sentiments and convert them into opportunities for themselves by subtly influencing the outcomes of key steps in the complex lawmaking process.

Remember how we just learned that big corporations draft much of the language that actually makes it into bills at the state level nowadays? Well, why do you suppose those big money types are so keen on having lawmakers delegate the hard work of sorting out the details to them?

There are many great business opportunities to be found in the many potential slips twixt cup and lip.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:04 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Although there are plenty of genuine issues to be concerned about in meat supply (animal welfare, healthiness, taste), I find that worker treatment at packing plants is one that really resonates with me (possibly because of the worst offenders is in my home state, North Carolina). If I want to buy my meat from the company that treats its workers the best, what should I be buying?

Although I know that the best choice is to get meat from a local farm, let's face it, most days I'm not going to do that. For those Sunday afternoons where I just want to run out and buy a chicken from the store, are there any brands that I would better off buying from?
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:11 AM on October 17, 2011


This will end up being the biggest story from our lifetimes. The financial and health industries will always fight over power and profits, but that we allowed this to happen with our food supply will be analyzed for centuries.
posted by secondhand pho at 9:16 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


No, what happened, most likely, is that some people had genuine political interest in improving safety but their political momentum got captured by industry lobbyists representing the big money who recognized an opportunity to improve their position in the market by exploiting whatever political momentum was behind the new safety regs.

It's happened with vegetables as we speak.

Although there are plenty of genuine issues to be concerned about in meat supply (animal welfare, healthiness, taste), I find that worker treatment at packing plants is one that really resonates with me (possibly because of the worst offenders is in my home state, North Carolina). If I want to buy my meat from the company that treats its workers the best, what should I be buying?

Although I know that the best choice is to get meat from a local farm, let's face it, most days I'm not going to do that. For those Sunday afternoons where I just want to run out and buy a chicken from the store, are there any brands that I would better off buying from?


You should be buying frozen chicken in bulk from a small local farm slaughtered on the farm (that's legal for chicken and you can see it yourself if you ask) so that you don't have to buy it from the grocery store, where there is really no way to tell how the workers are treated. I have a chest freezer in my tiny NYC apartment for that exact purpose. I suppose you could call around and ask where the meat in your grocery store is slaughtered and how many accidents they have per year/whether they have benefits etc. but you might not get far.
posted by melissam at 9:18 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


I highly recommend the book "Cadillac Desert" that explains how big vegetable and fruit concerns avoid fees that would be fair considering what the taxpayer has paid to build dams that make desert lands productive. The book is older, but reads like a novel. More of the free market for thee and socialism for me philosophy of job creators.
posted by Bitter soylent at 9:30 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


How does the EU manage the inherent conflict between max profit and max health with their generally higher standards and more stringent requirements ?
posted by infini at 9:30 AM on October 17, 2011


How does the EU manage the inherent conflict between max profit and max health with their generally higher standards and more stringent requirements ?

I only really know Sweden since I went to ag school there, but things are quite consolidated there as well. I don't think consolidation is always alien to health. They have better environmental and animal welfare regulations and better regulations for things like school food. They also have been phasing out subsidies, which in the US primarily go to things we need to eat less of. The EU funds some programs to help small farmers comply with regulations(such as the Innovation Relay Centre, some of the innovative tech used for slaughter in US is actually imported from Sweden and was developed there was an IRC loan/grant). There are huge issues going on right now for small farmers, many who have become quite hostile to the EU, but overall I think the regulations in the EU are sounder. To put it this way...I didn't feel bad picking up a chicken from the grocery store on the way home from work. Meat is more expensive though, but that's the way it should be.

There are big corporations, but they don't seem to have captured the government interests the way they have in the US.
posted by melissam at 9:52 AM on October 17, 2011


A good portion of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran covers this topic; I cannot recommend it highly enough.
posted by odinsdream at 9:54 AM on October 17, 2011


How does the EU manage the inherent conflict between max profit and max health with their generally higher standards and more stringent requirements ?

I don't think the problem is managing the conflict between profit and standards - risk/reward evaluation and methods exist. The problem is avoiding corruption. It doesn't matter how good you might be at doing a task if you're not actually doing it.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:59 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


melissam

Thank you for your answer. It helps me understand the difference since I too generally felt much better about the food I was picking up at the supermarket in Finland vs the stuff in the US plus I wasn't gaining weight at the same pace and rate though my diet hadn't changed.

harlequin - what you say makes sense, especially taken together with melissam's observation on the corporations capturing interests (aka corruption?)

I read Paul Robert's The End of Food a few years ago and more than any other book (Fast Food Nation, Pollan's works) it clearly showed the health and hygiene challenges posed by scaling in the mega food industry. It makes me wonder if there's any path but forward into the same challenging pit the financial industry finds themselves in now. This snippet I read today comes to mind,

The global growth model developed in the last 30 years has not served Africa or the world well as demonstrated by the current crisis. It is not efficient in generating sufficient productive, formal, decent jobs, in reducing inequality, in improving working conditions, in sharing benefits. It wound up producing an unfair, unbalanced and unsustainable globalisation,” he warned.

posted by infini at 10:18 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Big Food makes Big Finance look like amateurs.

Don't worry, I'm sure Big Finance has gotten its cut of Big Food's exploits.
posted by Rykey at 10:39 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't worry, I'm sure Big Finance has gotten its cut of Big Food's exploits.

But of course. One man's feast is literally another man's famine.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:03 AM on October 17, 2011


YES WE CAN CAN.

Is this the post where I can link to Moulin Rouge/Food Inc slashfic?
posted by zombieflanders at 11:20 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


The industrialization of agriculture is a curious topic, and a major focus for me lately. The very strange thing is that it hasn't improved yields at all: the selling point is the reduction in labour required, which is where its profits obtain. Contrary to popular belief, modern farming practices aren't particularly productive, and require staggering quantities of waste (soil erosion itself is completely fucked), as well as many industrial inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, fuel, etc). Countries like China and Japan haven't had nearly the level of "development" we have experienced, largely because rice farming doesn't automate that well. California rice farms get something like a third of the per-acre yield of traditional Japanese farms.

But the minimization of employees, combined with massive externalities and demand for additives make it extremely attractive to industry. I honestly doubt it would have happened at all if not for the world wars... really, it's the original model for Klein's "disaster capitalism". Industrial agriculture is the story of how we made a profit off of farms and farm families dying en masse.
posted by mek at 12:04 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


mek; do you have any links or suggested reading? I'm very interested in this topic.
posted by odinsdream at 12:12 PM on October 17, 2011


If you're interested in the genuine nuts and bolts of what makes sense and what doesn't for the future of food, Miguel Altieri's work is amazing and thorough. (eg. Fatal Harvest (PDF) is a neat summarization of problems and potential solutions in contemporary agriculture.) Chapter 7 of Energy and Society is a dry but accurate quantification of what happened when we industrialized agriculture (and where I nabbed the rice comparison from).
posted by mek at 12:33 PM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


The industrialization of agriculture is a curious topic, and a major focus for me lately. The very strange thing is that it hasn't improved yields at all

I'm going to assume you mean this in a much narrower context than you seem to imply, because broadly this isn't remotely true. Pg 3. of this article has US Corn Yields T/Acre 1860-2000(PDF). Form 1860-1940 yields were stuck at below 2T/HA, and now they've hockey sticked up to something like 8t/HA

More complete Data set for most major crops grown in the US. in .txt form

Also there are a bunch of reasons why comparing Japanese rice farms and California rice farms is not really apples to apples.
posted by JPD at 1:24 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Look on the bright side; after Peak Oil and Global Climate Change we* will all be living as hardscrabble farmers, desperately trying to eek out enough of a reserve to make it through the winter. Things like bananas and pineapples will be luxuries restricted to the wealthiest of those controlling the remnants of our civilization.
posted by happyroach at 1:31 PM on October 17, 2011


If anything JPD I mean it in a broader context, in terms of total inputs vs. total outputs. The exceptionally high yields of industrial corn farms are dependent on massive industrial inputs and environmental externalities - it is "productive" in a very loose sense. It's also an outlier crop in terms of what industrialization can achieve (which is, of course, why we grow so very much of it now). Corn farming is actually the topic of a significant portion of the linked chapter of Energy and Society above.
posted by mek at 1:35 PM on October 17, 2011


But of course, organic sucks too. What does a sustainable future agriculture look like? Well, i'll just gesture to Altieri here, as I'm not an expert, I'm still waist-deep in readings. But what we have now isn't going to last.

Here's a brief overview of issues facing nitrogen inputs, another huge problem in agroecology, and what our modern corn yields hinge on.
posted by mek at 2:13 PM on October 17, 2011


Things like bananas and pineapples will be luxuries restricted to the wealthiest of those controlling the remnants of our civilization.

I've seen that movie...
posted by Gelatin at 3:50 PM on October 17, 2011


I think End of Food also touches upon these aspects of industrial agriculture but in a more popular way
posted by infini at 10:54 PM on October 17, 2011


« Older women's self defence   |   Centenarian completes full marathon Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post