Robber barons in the food system
June 14, 2024 7:11 AM   Subscribe

The Grab: "a riveting new documentary which outlines, with startling clarity, the move by national governments, financial investors and private security forces to snap up food and water resources."
The Grab, from the Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and filmed over the course of six years, captures the CIR team’s developing understanding of the pattern in real time, connecting Halverson’s Smithfield reporting in 2015 to a New York investment company’s purchase of Arkansas farmland to supply Hong Kong, WikiLeaks cables detailing how Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah ordered national companies to buy up resources abroad to drained aquifers in Arizona, and a leaked trove of emails from a private security company to displaced farmers in Zambia. The notches in the pattern are geographically disparate and murky, but they underscore one point: what oil was to the 20th century, food and water will be to the 21st – precious, geopolitically powerful and contested. “The 20th century had Opec,” says Halverson in the film. “In the future, we’re going to have Food Pec.”

That trend is already under way, from Mexico’s avocado militias to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which the film argues was motivated, in part, by Putin’s desire to control a bread basket. The Grab has the feeling of a revelation, though the reveal is not a conspiracy; the pattern is less a plan than a series of reactions, from a variety of actors, to the fact that every single human needs food and water, and there is not enough arable land on Earth for the projected increase of 2 billion people by 2050. The instinct, on a primal and national level, is to hoard.
-Why Bill Gates is the largest private farmland owner in the United States
-'A system perverted by corporate money': inside documentary sequel Food, Inc 2

What is Behind the Rise in Food Prices as a Few Monopolies Gouge the Public and Farmers While Protected by the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack [30:12; mp3] - "Then finally we speak with Austin Frerick, an expert on agricultural and antitrust policy. He worked at the Open Markets Institute, the U.S. Department of Treasury, and the Congressional Research Service before becoming a Fellow at Yale University. A 7th generation Iowan, he's the author of the new book Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America's Food Industry. We investigate what is behind the rise in food prices, as a few monopolies gouge the public and the farmers while protected by the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack."[1,2]
  • Interview with Austin Frerick, author of 'Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America's Food Industry' - "I got the idea to write this book back in the spring of 2018. Over Busch Lights at the dive bar Carl’s Place in Des Moines, an Iowa political operative told me about a couple who had recently donated $300,000 to Republican Governor Kim Reynolds in support of her campaign for reelection in a hotly contested race against Democrat Fred Hubbell. According to the operative, the donors were hog farmers who owned a private jet emblazoned with the phrase 'When Pigs Fly.' I just found this image to be such a powerful example of what happened to Iowa over my life: the power of robber barons in the food system has overrun the state's government to the detriment of its environment and its communities. My curiosity led me to co-write an article about the Hog Barons in Vox. But as I dug into their story, I realized that they’re just part of a bigger trend that has transformed the food system in places across the country and beyond."
  • Each chapter is built around both a baron and a key concept. I first figured out the key ideas I wanted to touch on in the book and then worked backwards to figure out which baron best encapsulates each idea. For example, the Berry Baron chapter is really about the outsourcing of America’s produce system. I used the story of Driscoll’s to explain how this happened and what it means for farmworkers.

    Likewise, I tell the story of JAB Holding Company, which is owned by a secretive German family that took over the global coffee industry in less than a decade by gobbling up countless independent companies using wealth traced back to the Nazis. You probably haven’t heard of JAB, but I promise that you’ve heard of their brands: Peet’s Coffee, Caribou Coffee, Einstein Brothers Bagels, Bruegger’s Bagels, Manhattan Bagel, Noah’s NY Bagel, Krispy Kreme, Pret A Manger, Insomnia Cookies, Panera Bread, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Intelligentsia Coffee, Green Mountain Coffee, Trade Coffee, and Keurig. I use their story to talk about changes in American antitrust law and what those changes mean for democracy...

    While researching the chapter on the Dairy Barons, I discovered a previously unreported incident in which a worker died on their farm in January 2021. The incident took place in a barn that I happened to tour just a few months later. Records from the Indiana office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration described the man as a forty-seven-year-old recent immigrant born in Honduras who spoke limited English. He had been working a twelve-hour shift near manure equipment when his clothing got caught in the machinery. He was pulled in and died from asphyxiation. He left behind a wife and three children. In response, OSHA fined the Dairy Barons just $10,500. But sadly, what surprised me most in this tragedy was how hard it was for me to uncover what happened. It took years of persistent hounding to get this information...

    In May 2021, I was driving down Highway 6 just five miles east of Grinnell heading to a site visit when I noticed a multistory industrial animal facility (what some might call a CAFO) going up. I’ve driven this stretch of road hundreds of times, so I knew it pretty well and recognized the new building instantly. I had read about the use of multistory industrial animal facilities in China, but I had never seen or read about one in America. I pulled over, took a picture, and tweeted out, “I passed what I assume is one of the first-multi-story CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operations]/confinement farms in America. … Truly horrifying.” The tweet went sort of viral, and the Des Moines Register ended up doing a story based on my tweet.

    After the publication of that story, I did not think much of it until a few weeks later when my boss forwarded me an email she had received... My boss told me to laugh it off and not to worry, but I know the story would be different if I was at a university where Big Ag runs the show. To be frank, instead of being told by my boss to laugh it off, I’d probably be shown the door right then or pretty soon after...

    Most of these barons became powerful because they were willing to cross ethical lines that others weren’t willing to cross. They then used this advantage to corrupt the political system and compound their economic power. You really see an example of this process in my first chapter on the Hog Baron. The cost of this corruption is that we can’t solve basic problems and government is no longer responsive to people’s needs. It increasingly functions to serve the barons’ interests.

    This corruption matters to all of us. The food we consume and the way it is produced has enormous implications for our health and our environment. It impacts the strength of our cities and towns, the cleanliness of our air and our water, and, in the face of global climate change, the livability of our planet. Food is also incredibly important to our sense of identity and culture. The corruption of our food system benefits a handful of barons to the detriment of all of these values.
  • The Hog Barons - "How Iowa's largest hog producer courted power, turned farming into a numbers game, and transformed the American heartland."
  • Why Austin Frerick Is Taking On The Grocery Barons - "Cargill is really the story of the Farm Bill and what happened to it. Cargill is the largest private company in America. They're all about from the second grain is picked, to when it's put on your plate. They want to own that process and they don't have consumer facing brands. A lot of people don't know who they are. They're almost like the 19th century British Empire because they're so global. We've never had companies like this before."
  • I view places like Iowa as extraction colonies. They remind me of West Virginia in the 19th century and the coal companies, or the way the British Empire would run colonies in Africa.

    But what this really means is we're not doing anything about climate change in the food system. I mean, all of our solutions for addressing climate change in the food system are a joke.

    This book is intellectually two things. First this is what neoliberalism did to the food system. But also, where do we go from here? I mean, it's easy to complain, but what should a post-neo-liberal food system look like? And that to me is where the hope is. What does a multicultural democratic system look like?

    The focus needs to be on labor. So many more people work in the food system when you include people like my parents. I'm also of the opinion that we need to abolish the Farm Bill. I think the system is to just too corrupted. It's designed for Wall Street. It picks winners and losers. It's incredibly expensive. So I’d rather take all the money in the Farm Bill, and I'm not talking about the food assistance programs, but just actual farm programs and just put it into conservation. Go from there. And then, to me, a silver lining, especially for rural America, is putting animals back on the land.

    One of the beautiful things of writing a book like this is I just spent a lot of time with different people doing it right. And what you quickly realize is throughout the food system, there's a lot of people trying to do the right thing, trying to implement reforms to get us to a better, healthier, more sustainable, inclusive, multicultural food system. We just have a few greedy people holding us back.
  • Book excerpt: 'Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry' - "But the New Deal Farm Bill had devastating flaws. Black farmers, especially those in the South, did not enjoy the same support. Sharecropping, adopted in the South after the Civil War, replaced slavery as an institution for perpetuating white control. Wealthy landowners who had virtually no connection to the land and rarely farmed relied on the labor of tenant sharecroppers for most of the planting and harvesting. These landowners accrued nearly all the profits while sharecroppers endured perpetual poverty."
  • Yet for all its flaws, the New Deal Farm Bill accomplished its goal of protecting white farmers, and for a while, it produced a relatively balanced farm economy. For Cargill, the New Deal Farm Bill did not threaten the company’s power or force it to pay a penny to limit overproduction.

    But as soon as these policies were put in place, Cargill and its corporate brethren still worked to destroy them. Even without a tax on processors, the New Deal Farm Bill placed a ceiling on the growth of companies such as Cargill that benefited from processing commodities on a large scale. After all, the incentives in the New Deal Farm Bill that limited the production of commodities in turn limited the grain crops that companies like Cargill could store, process, and transport. For decades, their allies slowly took it apart, and 50 years on, they found a way to pass what I call the Wall Street Farm Bill.
Meet the uber-wealthy families who control much of the food system in the US and Australia - "The average American farmer doesn't fix fences and drive tractors. Thanks to market concentration, there is now a handful of companies that dominate the US food system, and they are impacting Australia too."
posted by kliuless (7 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
every single human needs food and water
Italy decriminalizing food theft was powerful. thanks for this! []
posted by HearHere at 8:49 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]

Here's another example.

This is north Texas/eastern New Mexico. It is a dry, arid, desert. That image looks pixelated because those green dots are center-pivot irrigation systems that are sucking water out of the Oglala Aquifer to grow food for cattle production in a part of the world not very well suited for that. The US beef industry is controlled by just four companies, one of which is the above-mentioned Cargill.

There's so much milk produced in the area that they recently built a cheese factory to make block cheese, something that the US has such an excess of that there are 1.5 BILLION pounds of it in cold storage.

This pisses me off so much.
posted by Runes at 9:31 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]

Thank you so much for posting this! I found out about the movie by listening to a repeat of a Reveal podcast and have been excited to see it. I'm also working on a vanity project code-named "Constitution 2.0", in which I employ maximum hubris to declare a new 250th-ish anniversary replacement for the 1789 U.S. Constitution. A key piece is the adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the core basis for American individual rights. Article 25 of the UDHR states, in part:

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and of their family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control."

So I've been working on a "Responsibilities of the State" section that clarifies what role the state should have in securing these rights. There's a section on Food (this is a v0.1 draft really; feedback welcome):

Every American has a right to healthy, safe, and ethically produced food. Furthermore, it is in the national interest to have a diverse variety of local and regional food sources.
The government shall:
• Ensure that food is produced in a safe, ethical, and sustainable manner, including responsible use of water, soil, fertilizer, pesticides, and other resources.
• Strictly regulate large-scale animal processing to ensure that workers and animals are treated humanely.
• Ensure that the United States has a resilient food supply by promoting crop rotation, climate-resilient crops, and use of farmland primarily for domestic food production.
• Encourage small farmers through subsidies, education, land grants, and defense of farmers’ and farmworkers’ rights.
• Respect and promote the knowledge of career farmers and directly involve them in decision-making.
• Strictly regulate the acquisition, consolidation, and conversion of farmland by corporate interests. People who live on and work the land should own the land.
• Forbid foreign ownership of any agricultural land in all cases.
• Take steps to privilege and promote fresh and healthy food over heavily processed and unhealthy food in the marketplace.
• Ensure that all commercially sold food and drink is clearly labeled with nutrition information, sourcing, and other approved classifications so that consumers can make informed choices. Furthermore, the state shall strictly prohibit the display and use of any other informational labels that compete with or dilute the clarity of the approved labels.

posted by caviar2d2 at 10:43 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]

If you shine a light on this story at just the right angle, the shadow looks just like Cop City.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:09 PM on June 14 [4 favorites]

Our owners and rulers were never in any doubt about climate change, its causes and effects. They simply have a very different response to dealing with it. They plan on winning the dystopia when the crops fail and the pumps stop and the air conditioning cuts out. We know from their memos that decades ago they knew, and they choose to murder us for money, and with that money, they will enslave or murder the rest of us. Good thing they can be defeated with bumper stickers and symbolic purchases or we'd be in a real hot pickle.
posted by No Climate - No Food, No Food - No Future. at 1:23 AM on June 15 [5 favorites]

Thank you so much for posting this!! I know it's a farm bill year and have been looking for news/activism to bubble up (I hoped...) but haven't seen anything until your post - thank you!
posted by esoteric things at 11:17 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]

Mod note: [Thanks, kliuless! This has been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog.]
posted by taz (staff) at 2:05 AM on June 17

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