The current Industrial mass production of food for profit is a political, economic and social crisis that has devastating effects on human health and threatens the survival of the planet. Certainly one of our most fundamental of human needs is our ability to grow and procure adequate nutrition. Yet over the past 50 years, Western societies, and particularly the United States, have radically shifted methods of growing and producing food for human consumption. Using the twin vehicles of destructive food policy implements and growing reliance upon industrialization and oil, this unsustainable model of food production continues to spread and grow unabated in an era of declining oil production and clean water availability.
This structure not only threatens the security of the entire global food system, but also threatens human health and destroys our environment. Then again, this information is not groundbreaking or novel. Scientists and independent research agencies have been sounding the alarms for years, with writers like Michael Pollan and the creators of food documentaries such as Forks over Knives and King Corn popularizing the food crisis in the mainstream. But beyond the political, social and almost celebrity status of eating well (that is eating locally grown, organic whole foods), what most food policy advocates and researchers have failed to do is identify and hold accountable the true cause of our broken food system: “free market” Capitalism.
Corporations Own our Food Supply
From seed to supermarket, every stage of industrialized food production is owned, managed and manipulated by corporate conglomerates whose annual profits hover in the billions of dollars, more money than many developing nations’ entire GDPs. Giant multinational corporate entities like Cargill, Nestle, Monsanto, ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland have carefully crafted and promoted economies of scale that allow them to dominate domestic and international markets in such a way that only a handful of companies now control both price and supply.
In 2012 alone, US Agribusiness spent $137 million on lobbying efforts to promote corporate interests through the purchase of favorable legislation[i]. Aside from the political influence they wield in Washington, the funding of farm policies that ensure their continued power and freedom from government regulation is not confined to US borders. Corporate reach stretches even more insidiously into the financial industry, influencing the availability of credit in third world countries through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to promote these corporations’ self-serving capitalistic interests[ii].
Not only do suppliers own the seeds themselves as well as the credit markets through which farmers purchase those seeds, but this handful of powerful corporations also own or contract much of the land those seeds are grown on, the chemicals used to grow them and the facilities necessary to process their outputs. Our food system is built upon just a few high-value (and increasingly genetically modified) export crops like wheat, soy, and corn. In fact, 95 percent of US soy, and 86 percent of US corn is genetically modified[iii]. Our food system is progressively becoming owned by farm corporations instead of traditional small farmers, and that takeover is being effected with the assistance of purportedly capitalist and certainly corporatist governments that embrace the “free” market mentality of exponential growth, deregulation and unbound corporate profits.
The financial burden, of course, is primarily shouldered by lower and middle class tax payers who are increasingly responsible for funding the ever-expanding subsidies that allow these corporations their unchecked monopoly-like growth. The Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 greatly reduced tax rates on the wealthiest of Americans and, according to the non-profit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, have greatly contributed to the rise in income inequality. Wealth disparity is currently at its highest level since the 1920s, just before the economic meltdown that caused the Great Depression[iv].
Aside from the fact that America’s wealthiest households, as well as corporations, are paying less of a share of their incomes in federal taxes than the bottom 80 percent of American taxpayers, between 1995 and 2012 Big Ag collected over $296 billion dollars in farm subsidies. Even more distressing is the fact that 10 percent of subsidy recipients received over 75 percent of the funds. In short, a very small number of wealthy food producers are collecting the lion’s share of tax-funded subsidies[v]. Despite record farm profits (2012 saw the highest profits since 1973), the recent passage of the $1 trillion Farm Bill expands pay-outs to millionaire farming entities even further, increasing crop insurance subsidies and raising price targets for commodity crops, while simultaneously eliminating Food Stamps for over 46 million Americans suffering in poverty [vi]. Corporate welfare legislation, such as the Farm Bill, only serve to increase the national debt, drive small family farming operations out of business, promote environmentally harmful industrial farming practices and siphon tax revenues from the lower classes up the income ladder to the pockets of the wealthiest 1%, widening income disparity to record levels.
Cargill, one of the largest food producers in the world and the world’s largest privately-held corporation, boasted nearly $134 billion in sales last year alone[vii], more than the GDPs of Ecuador, Honduras, Laos and Serbia combined. Cargill is a prime example of the corporate ownership of an entire supply chain from seed to dinner plate. Not only do they grow their own soy on contracted Brazilian lands formerly occupied by dense rain forest and processed in Cargill-owned soy processing plants, their patented soy-based animal feed is then transported to Cargill-owned concentrated cattle feed lots, at which point it is then fed to Cargill-owned food animals, which are then slaughtered and processed in Cargill-owned slaughterhouses and processing facilities.
There is no competition and very little, if any, government oversight for the humane treatment of animals or the fair and humane treatment of the workers who grow the soy and process the meat for Western consumption. As of 2011, the United States Federal Drug Administration, tasked with ensuring the safety of America’s food supply, inspected only 6 percent of domestic food producers and 0.4 percent of imports[viii]. According to the CDC, foodborn pathogens sicken 48 million people in the U.S. each year, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually. The food industry over the past three decades has gradually assumed the role of self-inspection as capitalist governments have steadily defunded federal food inspection agencies and passed legislation and farm policies that deregulate agribusiness.
Corporations have managed to maintain their steadily increasing profits over the past three decades, despite stagnant wages for the working classes, by keeping food prices artificially low through government subsidies funded by the very same working class tax payers who purchase their goods. Since the majority of subsidies are paid for cash crops like corn, wheat and soy, and those cash crops yield the highest profits for Big Ag, what has also occurred over that same three decade time period is a huge shift in consumers’ diets from sustainably and locally produced whole grains, free-range meat, and fresh fruits and vegetables to a diet of processed corn and animal products[ix]. The previous decades’ farm policies have also created a fundamental shift in the production of commodity crops through the outsourcing of farming to third world countries that provide cheap land and labor with fewer regulations than the US. It’s a system designed to maximize American-based corporate profit while continuing to provide cheap food for working-class, urban populations[x].
As a result of this outsourcing, a small number of wealthy, imperialist countries, most notably the US, have come to dominate the global food system. In doing so, they dictate prices while at the same time reducing ecological diversity through the creation of mono-ecosystems based entirely on three or four commodity crops that are extremely energy-intensive to grow and harvest. This shift in production has resulted in the restructuring of agriculture in third world countries to the detriment of their populations. Though it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact date this transition took place, it is clear that with the spread of “free-market” capitalism, our food system has transformed into the unsustainable, exploitative, profits-driven structure of today. Shaped by predatory corporations whose interests lay not with consumer health or environmental sustainability, today’s focus is on obtaining the highest possible profit through the exploitation of cheap labor and the exponential consumption of limited resources like oil and clean water.
By outsourcing food production to the third world (also known as the global South), imperialist nations like the US have forced indigenous peoples into the global cash economy under the false guise of helping them modernize. However, the reality is that their impoverishment is only intensified because of the shift from their traditional practices of self-sustenance farming to the contracted production of commodity crops for the global North. These are commodities that the third world cannot consume themselves because they lack the ability to process them into edible foodstuffs, or they simply cannot afford to purchase the products their crops are processed into.
Forced to sell the fruits of their labor at low and non-competitive prices, indigenous peoples literally become the slaves of both the corporate food producers at the top of the food system hourglass as well as the corporate food retailers, like Walmart and Kroger, who reside at the bottom of the hourglass. Squeezed in the middle are the exploited contracted growers, small farmers and laborers who sacrifice their land, health and livelihoods to produce the cheap unhealthy food Western societies have become reliant upon.
The Environment: Let them eat oil
Thirty-three percent of total global warming effect can be directly attributed to our current system of food production[xi]. It’s not just the planting, harvesting, processing and transportation of food (and feed for food animals) that requires enormous quantities of petroleum; the production of a single ton of nitrogen-based fertilizer requires 1.5 tons of oil to manufacture it[xii]. It cannot be overstated how critical and dependent the global food system has become on the availability of cheap and unending oil supplies to provide the energy it needs to overcome the traditional yield limitations of nitrogen-fixation in nature.
It is only through the massive application of oil-derived, nitrogen-based fertilizers that our food system is able to produce the quantities of commodity crops it currently does. In fact, in the United States alone, 20 percent of fossil fuel consumption is allocated solely to the food chain, a third of which goes directly into the production and application of chemical fertilizers[xiii]. This creates not only a system naturally vulnerable to increasingly volatile weather patterns as a result of climate change and drought, but also a system unnaturally sensitive to the price of oil. From this oil-driven profit machine comes the basis of our entire food system: cheap commodity crops and the food animals that eat them.
Because processed commodity crops and animal products are easy to grow, highly subsidized (i.e. profitable), shelf-stable and easy to transport, corporate giants have abandoned traditional, sustainable, and nutrition-based farming for commodity crop production. In fact, corn provides the basis for the majority of all food products found in modern day supermarkets and, along with soy, is the primary ingredient in all commercial cattle, pork and poultry feed. From meat, to high fructose corn syrup, to the majority of all processed packaged foods, nitrogen-intensive corn – and its thousands of derivatives – is the main ingredient in America’s corrupt food system. The production of cheap meat and animal products accounts for 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire global transportation sector combined. Additionally, livestock production generates 37 percent of human-caused methane gas emissions, and it takes eight times more fossil fuels and 200 times more water to produce a single pound of factory-farmed beef versus a pound of fresh vegetables[xiv].
Even smaller local producers of raw materials, who sell their crops to corporations for processing, work mostly under the control of business contracts or single buyers who offer no price negotiations and often dictate the crop varieties that are grown based upon those varieties that yield the highest profits for corporations. Since the only way to survive as a farmer is to maximize crop yields, even small farmers are pressured to adopt industrial methods of production, and the associated debt, to be competitive and survive in the industry. This is why small growers are increasingly likely to adopt the practice of applying massive amounts of chemical fertilizers and switch from traditional seeds to higher-yielding genetically modified seeds.
Reducing competition even further, these seeds are usually made by the same company which produces the chemicals needed to make them grow. Gone are the days where small farmers were an essential part of a system of subsistence farming based on ecological diversity and aimed at providing nutritious food for consumers. That system has been replaced by agribusiness that, in the face of unchecked profit potential, could care less about human health or environmental sustainability.
With the world’s seed supply in the hands of few corporations, thousands of traditional seed varieties have been eliminated as “unprofitable” and are no longer available anywhere. Replaced by genetically modified and non-reproducing “Franken-seeds,” the world’s biodiversity and ecological sustainability are in steep decline. Monsanto alone owns over fifty percent of the world’s seed stock and has successfully patented the genetics of hundreds of varieties, allowing them to criminally target farmers who save seeds for replanting or for even accidentally allowing cross-contamination into their fields[xv]. It’s a profitable business scheme that requires farmers to repurchase seeds each year and the chemicals those seeds depend upon to grow. Many heirloom seed varieties that have been around for millennia, having adapted and evolved to changing climates and unique landscapes, are quickly becoming extinct. The goal in today’s industrialized, corporate-owned food system, is to develop seeds that can survive massive quantities of pesticides, herbicides, even Round-up, to yield the highest amount of outputs at the lowest possible cost.
It sounds efficient and it is, but at an astronomical price to our environment. One such price is the “dead zone” located in the Gulf of Mexico that spans an area the size of the state of Louisiana and is caused by nitrogen runoff from factory farms and industrial crop production. It’s not just biodiversity that is threatened, industrialized food production is so energy-intensive and polluting that it contributes upwards of 16,900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year[xvi]. Hypoxia, the depletion of dissolved oxygen in water caused by synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, leads to massive fish kills and the extinction of aquatic life – and unfortunately the damage is nearly impossible to reverse. Not only is the water affected, but so is the soil. According to food activist Stephanie McMillan, “Ninety-eight percent of American prairie has been converted into annual mono-crops. In the U.S., industrial agriculture causes the loss of three tons of topsoil per acre, per year.”
Industrial farming has resulted not only in massive soil erosion, but also serious declines in soil quality. For example, the application of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorous -based chemical fertilizers reduces the nutrient content of plant bi-products by up to 38 percent in some crops. In addition, conventionally grown plant bi-products have less vitamin C, riboflavin, and calcium; modern-day wheat has 28 percent less iron than traditional organically grown wheat[xvii]. Even the “fresh” tomatoes you find in your local supermarket were most likely grown from genetically modified hybrid seeds on lands in Latin American countries cleared of forests to make room for fields, then sprayed with massive quantities of oil-manufactured chemicals. Picked green by laborers earning pennies per hour, those tomatoes are transported thousands of miles and then ripened by retailers using ethylene gas. Nutritionally inferior, conventionally grown produce represents a massive and ever-increasing carbon footprint to the point that a pound of industrially-grown tomatoes represents five pounds of carbon pollution.
Viewing nature solely in terms of profit-generation and ignoring the environmental limits of the natural world, capitalism in food production has caused a huge shift in how humans understand and consume food. As more people move to urban areas and become even further removed from their food sources, consumers are progressively more at the mercy of corporate food producers and mass retailers for their nutrition and food security. Walmart alone owns 44 percent of the US retail food market. Consequently, we have far less control over the quality and safety of our food supply and suffer as well as the ethical and environmental implications of how it was produced. Extractive capitalism transforms cheap raw materials like genetically modified corn, wheat and soy into more expensive convenience versions of food-like products from frozen dinners to fast food burgers and sugar-laden cereals. What this means is that our food no longer derives from farms, but from factories, where they are pumped full of carcinogenic preservatives, synthetic dyes, corn syrup, salt and hydrogenated fats.
Health: It’s a class issue
In an era when soda is now cheaper than water, it is little wonder that while the developing world is starving, the industrial world is obese. Through farm subsidies and chronic over-production, corporate food producers have maximized profits and reshaped the Western diet by transforming cheap commodity crops into a the standard American diet of today, which is calorie dense, high in fat, sodium and sugar, and extremely low in nutrients [xviii]. Processed food now accounts for the majority of calories consumed in western diets, resulting in an explosion of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. Since fresh, wholesome, and minimally processed foods are more expensive and difficult to access, the capitalistic corporate food system has created enormous race and socioeconomic class barriers.
For many, obesity and ill-health are less a matter of choice than a matter of circumstance. Structural factors, not independent ones, have resulted in poor and minority neighborhoods having 30 percent fewer supermarkets than white neighborhoods, forcing the poor to rely on convenience stores and corner stores to fill their refrigerators and cupboards with things like processed donuts, chips, soda and boxed convenience foods. Aside from being cheap and shelf-stable, processed convenience foods are often the only available foods to people in poor areas who lack the money and transportation to find healthier food options that are readily available in more affluent, and more often white, neighborhoods. This means a direct correlation between food access, obesity, socioeconomic class and race.
A primary cause of the race correlation in obesity is the long-implemented discriminatory housing and land policies promoted by the United States government in which federal housing loans, which allowed people to migrate out of poor urban communities to healthier suburban and rural communities. However federal housing statistics show that these loans were disproportionately awarded to white applicants over minority applicants. Over the past 50 years, this practice has led to concentrated ghetto communities of poor and minority people in urban areas cut off from mainstream financing. While simultaneously experiencing 30 percent fewer supermarkets, as mentioned previously, poor and minority neighborhoods also have six times more fast food restaurants which are notorious for offering inexpensive, highly processed, calorie dense food as their only options[xix].
This current structure of chronic economic inequality has translated into chronically unhealthy diets and explains why minorities have much higher rates of obesity. In fact, the top four chronic diseases in the US (heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes) are all diet-related, with the majority of these diseases suffered by poor and minorities[xx]. This phenomenon is not coincidental; the concentration of urban poor, as well as the explosion of cheap unhealthy processed foods, is a direct result of capitalism. They are both symptoms of a systemically malignant economic system that is both racist and classist and only benefits corporations and the mega-wealthy individuals that own them. Meanwhile, human health and the environment suffer the consequences.
As the problem of in access to quality food deepens, eating well and maintaining a healthy weight is quickly becoming a class privilege available only to those who can afford it. Not only do affluent white people have a greater abundance of healthy food options, but they also live in areas with more green space, access to walking paths and farmer’s markets, and the money to purchase gym membership and good healthcare. As the concentration of global wealth continues to migrate upwards, the people at the bottom are under even greater pressure to stretch their food dollar. Unfortunately this means a steady movement away from expensive fresh produce to a grocery cart filled with processed foods and factory-farmed animal products.
The sad irony of the situation is that Western culture is such that it’s widely assumed that obesity, and even being poor, are both a matter of choice and a reflection upon individual character. Corporate-owned media intensify race and class stereotypes with regard to society’s views on obesity, which only serves to increase the hostility and antipathy towards minorities and the poor. This culture of blaming the poor distracts us from examining the structural and corporate impacts our free-market economy contributes towards keeping people in chronic poverty and chronic ill-health.
In subordinating public welfare to the “free” market, the Western world allowed its food system to be hijacked by corporate interests. In a structure that completely disregards human health and the condition of planet, it continues to ignore natural limits in the consumption of oil, water and minerals as if their supplies will never end. Exponential growth is such an entrenched concept of capitalism that the entire system fails in growth’s absence. What will happen to our oil-dependent food system when oil supplies begin to decline? How will the corporate food system continue to produce the food we’ve become so dependent upon when it has no energy to plant, harvest, process and transport commodity crops? When the last acre of land is cleared to make room for fields and clean air and fresh water become commodities themselves, it will be too late to reclaim our food system, our health, or our planet.
In handing over control of our food supply to the Monsantos and Cargills of the world, we have forfeited one of our most basic human rights: ensuring the quality and security of our food. Renewable sources of energy to fuel our food system do exist. Non-chemical methods for producing food to feed the world’s growing population exist too. A food system in which no one goes hungry and everyone has access to healthy food is a practical and obtainable goal. However, none of these notions fit into our current food system because ours is a system not based upon human need, but upon corporate profit.
Wealthy people can afford to eat healthfully and poor people cannot. It is a system that is neither justifiable nor fair or moral. What’s more, what food activists and researchers have failed to do, or are too hesitant to do, is call out the root cause of our system’s failure in meeting our nutritional needs and maintaining an ecologically diverse environment. The origin of our food system crisis is that it’s built upon “free-market” values; values which do not serve the interests of people or the planet. It is a capitalistically-based system reliant upon exponential growth and the consumption of limited, non-renewable resources. It is a system that is fundamentally and undeniably impossible to sustainable.
[ii]Patel, R. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System (New York: Melville House, 2008). Patel discusses economies of scale, in his book Stuffed and Starved, and how they contribute to selective overabundance in the global North and chronic malnourishment in the global South.
[iii] McMillan, S., “Capitalist Food Production: A Leading Cause of Hunger, Illness, Ecocide, Exploitation, and Imperialist Domination”. Salty Eggs, December 20, 2012.
[iv]Allen, F. “How Income Inequality is Damaging the US,” Forbes.com, October 2, 2012.
[v] 2013 Farm Subsidy Database. Farm.ewg.
[vi]Steward, J. “Richer Farmers, Bigger Subsidies”, New York Times, July 19, 2013.
[vii] Forbes: List of America’s Largest Private Companies (2012). Available at Forbes.com.
[ix]Muldoon, A. “Animal, Vegetable, Movement?” International Socialist Review. Online Edition: Issue 70. (March-April 2010).
[x] Froetschel, S. Review of William J. Baumol, Robert E. Litan, and Carl J. Schramm, Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, and the Economics of Growth and Prosperity. Yale Global Online. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2007.
[xi]Sustainabletable.org: Energy Use and Climate Change (2013).
[xii] Magdoff, F. Food as a Commodity. Monthly Review Press, 2011.
[xiii]Avakian, B. “The Global Food Crisis…and the Ravenous System of Capitalism”. Revolution Online (edition 128). May 1, 2008.
[xiv] Sustainabletable.org, 2013.
[xv] Hubbard, K. “Monsanto’s Growing Monopoly”. Salon.com, May 30, 2013.
[xvi] Oliver, R. “All About: Food and Fossil Fuels”. CNN.com, 2008.
[xvii]McMillan, S., “Capitalist Food Production: A Leading Cause of Hunger, Illness, Ecocide, Exploitation, and Imperialist Domination”. Salty Eggs, December 20, 2012.
[xviii]Crossfield, P. “Why Unfettered Capitalism is bad for Your Health”. Alternet.org, May 24, 2009.
[xix] Amin, S. World Poverty, Pauperization, & Capital Accumulation. Monthly Review Press, 2003.
[xx] Crossfield, P. “Why Unfettered Capitalism is bad for Your Health”. Alternet.org, May 24, 2009.