February 6, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 36°F


Wenonah Hauter discusses the politics of food

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, visited Ithaca on Tuesday to discuss her new book, “Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America.” The book explores how farmers and consumers are impacted by the control and consolidation of corporations involved in the food industry.

The Bioscience Resource Project, a public interest science nonprofit that aims to create ecologically sound food systems, hosted the event at the First Baptist Church in Ithaca to educate the public about the importance of fighting for safe and healthy food.

Jonathan Latham, editor of Independent Science News, said he organized the presentation to both share and learn more about the work that Food and Water Watch, which monitors the quality, sustainability and accessibility of the food and water across the world, is doing for the food system.

“They are supporting sustainable agriculture, they’re fighting fracking and other unsustainable efforts to change the food system,” Latham said.

Hauter said events throughout history have resulted in a dysfunctional food system that is making consumers sick and putting farmers out of work.

There is a complete restructuring of the raw foods system that is heading in the wrong direction, Hauter said. Only a few companies control the majority of the meat industry, which typically produces cheap meat and uses cheap feed, Hauter said. In 2004, 80 percent of hogs were raised on factory farms. This value increased to 95 percent in 2007, the year of the most recent release of the agricultural census.

Hauter said 20 food companies currently own 60 percent of the brands in the grocery store today. The top food companies include PepsiCo Inc., Nestle and Tyson. Hauter said many food companies have turned to food scientists to help make their food more appealing by altering the effects of fat, sugar and salt in food products. Altering the food triggers a hormone that causes consumers to crave their various food products.

“These ruthless companies work with scientists to actually figure this out,” Hauter said.

Food companies have also mastered marketing strategies by targeting children. She said the goal of the big processing companies, like Nestle, is to get children to identify with their brands. The sooner children develop brand loyalty, the more likely they are to continue buying products of that brand as adults, she said.

“The average child sees just under 5,000 junk food ads every year on television,” Hauter said.

Hauter said the food processing companies are not the most powerful segment of the food industry. The grocery industry is on the top of the food chain and has negatively changed over the last 15 years since Walmart got into the business, she said.

Walmart has a strategy of using huge volumes of products from large meat processing companies. Hauter said it uses 1 billion pounds of beef every year on average and chooses meat corporations over small farms because they bargain for a large amount of meat at the cheapest rates.

“Walmart doesn’t want to deal with a bunch of smaller food and meat processing companies,” Hauter said. “They prefer dealing with companies like Tyson and JBS.”

The contracts Walmart makes with companies are non-negotiable. Hauter said the market share of food processing companies is greatly impacted by the food Walmart buys. Furthermore, Walmart uses expensive equipment to track the data and logistics of the system and influences other companies to use the same equipment, she said.

“Companies have to track their items using radiofrequency pads, which are very expensive to purchase … millions of dollars,” Hauter said.

Hauter said she did not write “Foodopoly” to upset people, but to encourage them to take part in fixing the world’s current food system. But she said taking part in the local issue is not enough. It’s imperative for people to get involved in the political system.

“There is no shortcut to fixing our democracy,” Hauter said. “We have to do organizing, which starts community by community. We can make a difference when people get involved.”

Lauren Flesher, a sophomore who studies sustainable agriculture at Cornell University, said she got a new perspective on the topic based on Hauter’s presentation. She said Hauter’s expertise helped her feel more confident in what she knows about the issue.

“I already knew a lot of what she was saying, but it impacted me because I am now more confident in sharing that information with others,” Flesher said. “Hearing from a voice of authority puts more faith behind the opinions I hold.”

Ithaca resident Phebe Gustafson said Hauter’s presentation provided new insight on how people can get involved to change the food system.

“You do what you can with the information given, and you do it in your own way,” Gustafson said. “There are a lot of ways that any individual can make a difference without feeling like they have to fix everything.”