Four companies decide what meat you eat, two choose what milk you buy, and soon only one will determine what beer you drink. Are we all fine with that?
Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat?
by Philip H. Howard
Bloomsbury Academic, 216 pp.
In the age of farm-to-table restaurants and the mainstreaming of organic foods, transparency has become an increasingly valuable commodity in food production. Nearly every day, more companies are committing to sourcing cage-free eggs, labeling genetically modified ingredients, and reducing antibiotic use in livestock production. One might take these changes as signs of a healthy, resilient food system. But in fact, these consumer-oriented nods to sustainability can reveal only so much about the opaque power structure that lurks behind the scenes of food production, distribution, and retail.
With Concentration and Power in the Food System, Philip Howard, of Michigan State University, poses a simple question: Who controls what we eat? This question has animated Howard's decade's worth of research on the food system. Howard's work investigates the corporate power web that forms the food industry's structure, and helps us understand how and why we eat what we do.
This slim book takes the reader through the history and importance of economic consolidation using a political economy lens. Howard seeks to demonstrate the negative effects of "fewer and fewer people [having] the power to make important decisions, such as what is produced, how it is produced, and who has access to these products." In Howard's analysis, a consolidated food landscape has negative effects on producers, consumers, and workers. Farmers have fewer and less-competitive markets in which to sell their hogs or corn. Shoppers consider thousands of goods at the grocery store, but many of them are produced by the same few food processors. And mega-retailers like Walmart set standards of low wages that are copied by competitors. The outcomes of these realities "tend to disproportionately affect the disadvantaged--such as women, young children, recent immigrants, members of minority ethnic groups, and those of lower socioeconomic status."
By looking at the interactions between regulation and corporations, Howard is able to more fully understand the political context in which consolidation has flourished.
Other commentators on the food system, such as Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, and Mark...