Wenonah Hauter is the Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. She has worked extensively on food, water, energy, and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Her book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America examines the corporate consolidation and control over our food system and what it means for farmers and consumers.
When she was 11, Wenonah’s father bought a hardscrabble farm in the Bull Run Mountains of Virginia. There she developed an appreciation for what it really means to grow food — she picked potato bugs, plucked chickens and chopped kindling.
Today, Wenonah is experienced in developing policy positions and legislative strategies, she is also a skilled and accomplished organizer, having lobbied and developed grassroots field strategy and action plans. From 1997 to 2005 she served as Director of Public Citizen’s Energy and Environment Program, which focused on water, food, and energy policy. From 1996 to 1997, she was environmental policy director for Citizen Action, where she worked with the organization’s 30 state-based groups. From 1989 to 1995 she was at the Union of Concerned Scientists where as a senior organizer, she coordinated broad-based, grassroots sustainable energy campaigns in several states. She has an M.S. in Applied Anthropology from the University of Maryland.
Publisher’s Weekly calls her book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America, “…a meticulously researched tour de force…” In Foodopoly she examines the corporate consolidation and control over our food system and what it means for farmers and consumers.
Hello everyone. I am Caryn Hartglass. Welcome. Thank you for joining me and thank you for tuning in. It’s time for It’s All About Food. That’s the name of this program. You know that and as I always say, it is all about food, everything is. If you connect the dots you realize food is somewhere in that picture and we’re going to be talking a lot about that today especially connecting the dots. I wanted to take a moment as I am feeling really grateful right now. I’m sitting in my home. I have a roof over my head. I am drinking this lovely, organic, fair trade, vanilla black tea. It’s really delicious and I finished a salad with a bunch of fresh broccoli sprouts that I grew myself and I’m thinking “everything is good and I’m happy for the choices that I am making for myself, nourishing myself and making choices that are gentle on the planet, but I can’t just sit and enjoy it too much because there is too much work to be done. Let’s just jump right into that. There are so many things going on with our food and we can’t sit back, well, maybe for a moment we can sit back, but then we have to get recharged and jump right back in. We’re going to be talking about a new book. You must all grab it and read it cover to cover. Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter. She is the Executive Director of Food And Water Watch. She has worked extensively on food, water, energy, and environmental issues at the national, state, and local level. This book, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America, examines the corporate consolidation and control over our food system and what it means for farmers and consumers. You can read more about Wenonah at my website www.responsibleeatingandliving.org and at the Food and Water Watch website. We’re going to be talking quite a bit about that. Welcome to It’s All About Food.
Wenonah Hauter: I am so glad to be here.
Caryn Hartglass: Well thank you for writing this book. I have a lot of things to say about it. First of all, it was difficult reading because there are just so many terrible things that are going on all the time and I felt in some ways it was a walk down memory lane because you cover quite a bit of history about our food system and I remember so many of the things that have happened in the last three decades, protests I went to, petitions I signed, and a lot of those things didn’t make it or pass and we didn’t get what we wanted. So I take a big sigh and say “Let’s keep going.” Let’s talk about all of those things and what we’re going to do about it.
Wenonah Hauter: Well that’s right because I think that’s one of the reasons that I wrote Foodopoly. We really have to build the political power to have the kind of food system that we want and actually that we claim in our democracy and I think that the two go together.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. I want to believe that this is a good time. I think it was a lot harder to get information about before but with the internet it is so much easier and more people are looking for it for lots of reasons. A lot of people’s health is failing and they are having allergies and all kinds of problems and there is something I think inside of us intuitively, at least in some of us that say “Something is not right.”
Wenonah Hauter: I think that you are exactly right. This is a turning point and there are so many people interested and excited about food and food issues and good food and it’s great for them and for all of us to vote with our forks and now we’ve got to get everyone to vote with their votes. We’ve got to get politically active.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to get into some of the details of your book but first I just want to summarize what I got from it. It seems like there are, as I see it, three major things that are going on. There are what we are all doing as individuals and the choices that we make, there is what is going on with corporations at the government level, and then where they’ve got all of the power and they are making all of the choices and then there is this advertising and media that is informing the individual. The individual then makes choices that support what the corporations are doing and it’s this cyclical mess because many individuals are not informed properly and they are kind of lulled into supporting what is going on.
Wenonah Hauter: I think that is a good way of looking at it. Basically, we have allowed companies, and in this case, food companies, to become so large that they have the political and economic power to both develop the kinds of foods that are profitable to change public policy to benefit their business, and to basically dictate all of the rules around food policy, whether it is labeling or whether we eat genetically engineered food or any of the other things that they are basically influencing our government to do. There are basically twenty companies that are the owners of most of the brands that we see in the grocery stores. They have hired food scientists to figure out how to… (inaudible)… to junk food and then they have basically dictated the policies to congress, to the Executive Branch and to the federal agencies. Then we have the big grocery stores like Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart gets 1 out of 3 grocery dollars so they have a tremendous amount of political power as well and economic power. They actually have a lot of power over the food processors.
Caryn Hartglass: The whole story that you tell, as I mentioned before, it’s so hard to read and believe it’s going on. As I understand it, these corporations work really hard at minimizing their costs at the expense of everyone below them. As you describe in Wal-Mart, the people that supply the food, those smaller companies or individuals are required to upgrade and bear the costs of the upgrades themselves when it ultimately only really benefits Wal-Mart and they profit from it and they are just squeezing whatever they can out of everyone. They profit and everyone else is just barely treading water.
Wenonah Hauter: I think that is exactly right. What was most interesting to me in researching and writing Foodopoly was that this has been a long term plan in creating this kind of food system. There were business leaders after WWII who really saw what they believed was an opportunity to substitute chemicals and capital for labor on the farm and they formed a business association that was very powerful and they began to chip away at the new deal policies that allowed farmers to make a living and for real food to be grown. Part of the reason that I wrote Foodopoly is that I think a lot of blame is put on farmers for the kind of food system that we have. The way I see it, farmers are victims as much as consumers, even those small and mid-size farmers that are growing commodity crops are locked into the system. It is shocking when you find out that the average small and mid-size farmer makes just over $19,000 and that is with the government subsidy and these are people that are just barely making it. We need these farmers and rural individuals to be our allies in recreating the food system because we need these smaller and mid-size farms to transition into a new kind of food system. Plus, they live in the places where the agriculture committees tend to get the members who vote on these important pieces of legislation like the farm bill, which should be called the food bill, so it’s very important that we engage them and don’t just demonize them.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s interesting that you just said the word demonize because I want to talk about the Devil. I’m not a religious person and I can’t say that I believe in God or the Devil. I keep thinking how it just seems that so many people have sold their souls to the Devil.
Wenonah Hauter: And the Devil is in the details of our food system, right?
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely and when I read every story in your book about different politicians or different corporate leaders literally selling their soul and making decisions or not allowing a case to go to court or having the Supreme Court decide that they are not going to hear a case, or just ruling one way that is totally ludicrous, it’s like they are all selling their souls to the Devil.
Wenonah Hauter: Yes. They are. They are selling their souls to the Almighty Dollar.
Caryn Hartglass: The Dollar, which is the devil.
Wenonah Hauter: I think what I wanted to do with Foodopoly was to untangle some of these policies but also to give people hope because we do need to rebuild our democracy and I think that is what it is going to take to finally really fix our food system. I think that food brings people to these issues and we need to start demanding that our government do things that benefit people. One of the takeaways from the book is that the consolidation that continues to happen. Under the Reagan administration, anti-trust law was eviscerated so we have this economic system that is supposed to be built on competition, but all public policy is directed at allowing acquisitions and mergers and not just in food, in every line of business. I wanted to reintroduce this issue in the context of food because I think one of the things that we need to do is start telling our elected officials that the Federal Trade Commission actually needs to do its job and we actually need Congress to look at mergers and acquisitions in the food industry. There is another big merger coming down and I bet most people don’t even know that it is happening. It’s ConAgra and Ralcorp. These are processed food companies.
Caryn Hartglass: Of course ConAgra needs to be bigger!
Wenonah Hauter: Right! Bigger. A real behemoth! We need to stop these mergers and acquisitions because the bigger these companies get, the more power they have and I think just to get this discussion out there and to start talking about how we want real competition, we want a marketplace that works for farmers and consumers, is part of what we need to change the consciousness.
Caryn Hartglass: I agree with you that it is important to give everyone hope and I want to talk more about what it is that we can do as individuals and it does come down to democracy. Right now we have, as you mention in your book, a number of different organizations within the government and most of them are underfunded, don’t have the resources, and there are actual regulations in the books that they cannot enforce. It is extremely frustrating and yet we all pay taxes and wonder where they are going to if they are not going to what we want. What should we do?
Wenonah Hauter: The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for overseeing the safety of most foods except for meat products and eggs and they are a terribly underfunded agency. We do have a new law that the rules are beginning to be written for the Food Safety Modernization Act so there will be some changes. Some of them will be beneficial and there will be more regulation of processed food. It won’t do some of the things that really need to be done like really step up the inspection of imported foods because the agency won’t have the funding for what needs to be done or enough inspectors to do it. I think that is one of the things that people are very surprised about, to know that really large percentages of our food, even organic food, production has been offshored. That has been one of the things that people can really stay on top of when you’re looking to buy products. You know, we really can’t ensure what kind of production methods are being used for organics in China. We have to go a lot on faith in this country to ensure that verification is working. So I think one of the things that people will be able to do and get involved in is maintaining the integrity of the organic standards. Some of the big companies, the top 20 food companies that control conventional foods, 14 of those are the biggest companies in organics and they have tried to weaken organic standards. I think that is one thing that people can start demanding to the USDA and the organics board that oversees this. That is one of the things that we watched and we plan when these meetings are held to let people know what is coming down the pike so that they can advocate because we need to maintain the standards of organics.
Caryn Hartglass: So what does that mean? We can go to your website and we can campaign, or a letter we can write?
Wenonah Hauter: It means that when the Organics Board is considering, in their meetings, a change to the organic standards, that is something we follow at Food and Water Watch and we notify people about. Another important issue that is going on right now that people can really play a part in is the genetically engineered salmon. I know that you and your listeners have probably been following this. We are actually pleased that we have held it off as long as we collectively have. Now there is a 60 day comment period. It is really important that as many people as possible come into the FDA and say that the assessment that they have done, basically the company that wants to raise the eggs for genetically engineered salmon, studies that they have done and the assessment, it’s inadequate and we want people to comment to the FDA and you can go to the Food and Water Watch site where you can make your comment. I think one of the biggest issues that people are really getting involved in is labeling genetically engineered food. Since we’re having a lot more genetically engineered products come into the marketplace, it’s really important that we work towards labeling. I think this is something that people are very concerned about. Some of these state bills to label genetically engineered food are going to get some traction this year. We know that it was a big disappointment that California initiative failed but there is another big initiative in Washington State and I know several of us will go back, several organizations will go back and fight for legislation in California. I think this is just an issue whose time has come.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. The time has come. I guess the good thing about the proposition that didn’t pass in California is that it was an opportunity for the information to get out to more people and more people are aware of what is going on so it’s just a matter of time.
Wenonah Hauter: That’s exactly right. A lot of people are educated about the issue now and so we need to build on that to do something in the future.
Caryn Hartglass: The scary thing for me about genetically modified food is that I am not convinced that it is safe because the testing has been insufficient, if there has even been any long term testing-I don’t think so. It is really hard to determine whether one food or another food is the cause of one particular problem but the scariest thing is that a small number of companies want to get control of our food supply, right down to the seed. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the musical “Urinetown” but I like the arts. I remember when I first saw it and I don’t know if everyone got the real point behind it. Basically in the story people had to pay in order to urinate and it was taxed and controlled by the government. The point is, that these companies, if we let them, will control as much of what is out there as possible-the food, the air, the water, our lives-if we let them.
Wenonah Hauter: That’s exactly right. We all know Monsanto’s role in promoting genetically engineered seeds and then the herbicides that the seeds are designed to resist and this has increased the use of herbicides and today, Monsanto controls the genetic material for 90% of soy seeds and 80% of corn. These are genetically engineered seeds, but there has also been massive consolidation of the seed industry so all seeds are more expensive and there is control by just a handful of companies. This is a real concern here in the US and you can imagine for the developing world where people save seeds what this means. It’s a really draconian plot.
Caryn Hartglass: I think a lot of the problems started when humans were first created but we could look at industrialization. Problems started there and after World War II a lot of things took hold in terms of corporations starting to use chemicals and get more control of our food supply, but at the same time, some good things have happened, haven’t they?
Wenonah Hauter: Oh absolutely! I am old enough to remember when the only lettuce you could find in the store was iceberg. I think there is a lot of awareness about our food system and I think that the growing food movement is especially exciting and the interest in local food and I think there is a lot of tremendous growth of interest in the things that are making people overweight and sicker. So that is a real plus and now we just need to engage those people more in the politics of food. The way I look at these things is this is something that every generation has to get involved in. Humanity has its ups and downs and we’ve had some real downs in recent times, but I think there is a big opportunity to change the way we live and to be more sustainable and to do that, people have to know what’s wrong and they have to get engaged in changing it in your own life and then having collective action to change it as well. I am very hopeful and I see all of these young people who are just so inspired and who want to go out and farm and do political work and that’s what we want to do is raise another generation of well-educated and mobilized young people.
Caryn Hartglass: We definitely need more small farmers to get back into the business but it has to be supported and it has to be sustainable and they have to be able to make a living doing it. That is certainly what needs to change. I’m not a believer that one person can change the world and I’m not expecting that President Obama can make huge changes, but now that he’s in his second term and he doesn’t have to worry about being re-elected, do you think he’ll get a little tougher?
Wenonah Hauter: I’m a little concerned that he won’t. First of all, as far as the biotech industry, the Obama administration has legalized more bio-tech crops than even the Bush administration. I think that the only way President Obama will do what he should do on any issue is if we make him do it. You know what I mean? He has actually said that we need to make him do these things. So we need to create a public outcry, which is what we are trying to do on the genetically engineered salmon, and demand that he do the right thing. And when those demands are made, we have a much better opportunity to get him to do what he should do. I think that there are some things in the next four years that he could do to improve the food system. He could reopen the debate at the USDA about the consolidation in the livestock market. He promised to do this because family farmers have no fair market to sell into. You have these big companies, the meat packers, the Tysons, the Purdues, the JBS’ that control the market for animals so family farmers just don’t have a chance. He said that he would investigate this and do something about it and he chickened out so I think that is something that we could raise with the Obama administration again. I think that we have to take these baby steps to get to where we need to be. I think that the genetic engineering and making a fair marketplace for smaller farmers who want to raise livestock; those are a couple of the places that we can do something.
Caryn Hartglass: You say a number of times throughout the book that we should eliminate factory farming, or at least I put that into my words. It’s a horrific thing and I’ve been saying it for years. It just needs to go away. It’s probably one of the worst, if not the worst creation that humans have conceived of and it’s horrible to the animals which is what gets to me the most personally. It’s devastating on the environment and the products that come out of it are not healthy for humans and then there are the contamination issues, e. coli, salmonella, and the antibiotic problem where we won’t be able to use antibiotics at some point because they are becoming super bugs. All of these things are really horrible. I’d like to put it out there that factory farming needs to go away.
Wenonah Hauter: Absolutely. Factory farming needs to go away and I think that if most Americans knew how their meat was raised and processed, that they wouldn’t eat it so that’s part of what we try to do at Food and Water Watch, is get that story out there.
Caryn Hartglass: People started screaming about pink slime and that is the tip of the iceberg. They have no idea what is really going on with their food. I got into food personally because I didn’t want to kill animals. I was a teenager and I just realized that what was on my plate was a dead animal and that just opened the door for me to learn so much more. I’m wondering since you know all of this stuff about food and where it comes from where do you get your food?
Wenonah Hauter: Well, first of all, I inherited a farm and my husband works that farm as a community supported agriculture product in the summer. So in the summer I get a lot of food from the farm. I still actually as recreation can and freeze things like tomatoes and blueberries. In fact, I had some frozen blueberries this morning from my garden and as far as in the winter and getting foods to eat during these months, I try to get organic food. I, like most people, am forced to go to the giant natural food stores like Whole Foods which is interesting because they have a strangle hold on the market and I don’t live near a food coop. I think that one of the things that we all need to do is to try and eat as many fruits and vegetables so if you don’t have access to a store when you can get organics, you can still try to eat as much from the outside of the grocery store rather than the inside and all of that processed food.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I am envious that you have access to your own food. It’s kind of a romantic notion that many of us have to farm but I really want to see more people get back to it and have it supported by the community because it is so, so necessary. Wenonah, thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food and I wish you the best of luck with this book. I would really like to see our entire government each get a copy and read it and be tested on it.
Wenonah Hauter: That would be great. I invite people to go to www.foodopoly.org and see when I am going to be doing a book tour. The reason that I did this book was to encourage people to get active and our www.FoodandWaterWatch.org website has a lot of ways that people can get involved.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. It’s a great website. All the best to you.
Wenonah Hauter: Thank you so much for having me on today.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m Caryn Hartglass and you are listening to It’s All About Food and we’ll be back in a moment with part two of this program.
Transcribed by Erin Clark, 3/7/2013