Occupy Wall Street and Food

With all the actions around the country recently stemming from the original Occupy Wall Street, I've been thinking often about how the big broad complaints "the 99%" are lodging are tied up in the food issues that I find so moving.

The problem is, as much as I love thinking about food, and as much as I fancy myself an intellectual, I have a really hard time grappling with economics and large-scale governmental policy. I know this stuff is at the core of so many of the problems with the way our food industries and food subsidies work, and yet, my mind doesn't easily grasp the core issues.

So, I'm grateful that there are folks like Tom Philpott, food and ag writer at Grist and Mother Jones, out there to bring so many of these important points together.

He's just put out a great article, "Foodies, Get Thee to Occupy Wall Street," with the tagline "Because Big Food makes Big Finance look like amateurs."

In it, he's talking not only to the elite "foodies," who sip on fine wine and munch on escargot, but to all of us who rely on an American food system, and perhaps especially to those for whom the most accessible food--the cheapest--happens to be the least healthy, because of food subsidies that lead to the dominance of highly-processed food.

He describes the protests as being a "challenge to the way power is concentrated in all aspects of our economy," and then lays out, in crushing detail, how concentrated and monopolistic the food industry is:
  • Six companies own 75% of the global pesticide market
  • Four companies sold half of the globe's seeds
    • three of them (Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont) are also among the six who run the global pesticide market, which means that the seed barons are genetically engineering seeds that work in tandem with the very chemicals that they themselves manufacture.
  • Three companies process 70% of beef in the US
  • Four companies slaughter and pack more than 58% of pork and chicken
  • Four companies--Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, and Louis Dreyfus—control up to 90% of the global trade in grain
    • In the US, three of those firms process 70 % of the soybeans and 40% of the wheat
  • Wal-Mart controls more than 25% of the grocery market
  • Just four companies produced 75% of cereal and snacks, 60% of cookies, and half of all ice cream.
Beyond the extreme monopolies, Philpott gives three other reasons that our country's food policy needs an overhaul. Follow the link to the article to see his full arguments, along with his robust footnotes, but here are some excerpts:
  1. "The food industry screws farmers, its own employees, and the environment."
    •  80% of the antibiotics sold in the United States go to livestock facilities. Antibiotic-resistant human pathogens, like MRSA, now kill more Americans than AIDS does.
    • From 1976 to 2009, the inflation-adjusted average hourly wage of meatpacking workers plunged, as did union membership among meatpacking employees. 
    • Between 1992 and 2007, the number of hog farms shrank from 240,000 to 60,000, despite an increase in the overall number of hugs being slaughtered
    • Animal factories emit unhealthy levels of particulate matter, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, and pollute groundwater with manure runoff
  2. "Wall Street's greed leaves millions to starve—literally."
    • Commodities speculators drive up the price of key food staples like rice and wheat—leaving tens of millions of people around the world hungry
  3.  Our politicians are in bed with agribusiness
    • From 1998 to 2011, agribusiness dropped $1.4 billion on lobbying, sixth on a list of clout-wielding sectors. Below the finance and health sectors, but above defense contractors and trial lawyers.
    • Federal employees at the USDA and FDA, the two federal agencies overseeing food and ag companies, report huge levels of industry influence, obstruction, retaliation, abuse of power, and data-fudging. There has been only a "very small" reduction in this since Obama took office.
    • GM crop programs have expanded and avoided regulation, despite strong warnings of their potential danger.
    • There has been almost no regulation of antibiotics in the livestock industry
Whoa. There's a lot that's there, and much more to take apart and think more deeply about, but I'm grateful to have this as a start, and to have all these data and statistics gathered in one place.

The world is a messy place. How to begin bringing order?

P.S. Happy 8 years to JH!


  1. Yeah! That article is great. How to bring order? There are so many people that need help, so many things that need fixing...just find one you're passionate about and dedicate yourself to it.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Anna. The Huff Post has a similar piece up as well: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-holt-gimenez/occupy-food_b_1021078.html


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