Do corporations have too much power over what we eat?
Yvette Cabrera and Agnes Bridge Walton
“It’s about putting democracy back into the food system,” said Devika Ghai from the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) at the April 23, 2012 symposium on Corporate Control of the Food System at the University of California at Berkeley. Vishrut Arya from Food First started the symposium by examining how corporate power affects our food system and identifiying possible solutions. He explained capitalism as having the fundamental objective to accumulate capital, and that capital is not a thing, but rather a process in which money seeks more money. He outlined the eight mechanisms within the capital accumulation process which, bit by bit, give larger firms the edge over smaller firms—something that, over time, leads to oligopoly and monopoly power. Then he presented an alternative to the current economic structure of the food system, where companies like Cargill and Monsanto hold huge market power. The solution? Agroecology—the science, practice, and social development of ecologically-based agriculture and food sovereignty (access to food and land as a basic human right).
Katie Cantrell, the organizer of this symposium and the founder of the Coalition to Fight Factory Farming, then presented some startling facts including that 10 billion animals are killed for food every year in the U.S? Large meat and dairy manufacturers including Smithfield and Dean Foods run Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). These companies have complete vertical and horizontal control over these animal farming systems. They not only raise or contract to raise the animals, but also process, package, and distribute the meat. She believes that this is so important because of the inhumane practices and environmental destruction that these corporations commit on such a massive scale. Katie’s bottom line was this: “Every purchase in a supermarket and every order from a menu is inevitably and powerfully linked with agricultural policy. Every time you make a decision, you are farming by proxy.”
Next up Hillary Lehr from the Rainforest Action Network talked about Cargill, the world’s largest grain trader. While most Americans have never heard of Cargill, they control huge swathes of our food system. Because Cargill is family owned, there is no requirement of public disclosure to shareholders. Cargill has caused catastrophes like the “Tortilla Wars” in Mexico and orchestrated massive greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia and Malaysia caused by deforestation. Hillary’s message was Don’t just state your anger with these corporations, resist their exploitation of our food system and boycott the ones you don’t agree with. Here, she referred back to the slogan of Occupy our Food Supply on the Feb 27 global day of action; Create and Resist. We must not only create positive solutions, but also fight the forces that control the broken food system.
Devika Ghai from Pesticide Action Network (PANNA) next focused on The Big Six; Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont, and BASF. These corporations own much of the world’s seed, pesticide and biotech industries, ultimately controlling the fate of food and farming. Pesticides and genetically modified seeds (GMOs) are the lynchpin of the modern industrial agricultural system. If pesticide use is pulled, this entire system fails. PANNA is working hard to raise awareness about these companies and the severity of pesticide poisoning and pollution in the world. PAN recently held an International Citizens Tribunal, a mock trial of The Big Six for their staggering number of human rights violations. The Tribunal delivered a verdict which was delivered to the White House and will soon be delivered to all six companies.
Rounding out the evening, three speakers presented local aimed at taking or holding control of our own food system. The first, presented by Ally Beach from Take Back the Tap, is a campus group working to remove bottled water from the UC Berkeley campus in protest against the privatizing of public water resources. We were introduced to the film Flow: For the Love of Water that tells the story of how the world’s water resources are being colonized for profit.
The last two presentations explored healthy local food options. Christina Oatfield from the _a href=http://www.theselc.org/>Sustainable Economies Law Center spoke about creating opportunities for local food initiatives through legislation such as the bill currently moving through the CA Legislature on Cottage Food Law and Gwen von Klan from the Berkeley Student Food Collective described their success in giving Berkeley students access to affordable, ethical, local and healthy products. An added bonus for all who attended was a tasting of some of the foods available at the Berkeley Student Food Collective.
For us—both interns in the Bay Area food movement—it was great to step away from our laptops to get new ideas, facts and inspiration for our work. Sometimes we need a reminder of why what we do is important, and that we are not alone in thinking so. We were able to share great food and conversation with students and activists, reinforcing our belief that a different food system is possible. We were reminded about what we need to resist, but inspired by those among us who are relocalizing healthy food. Now, once again tapping away on our computers, we would like to thank all of those who helped make the symposium a success, from speakers to organizers and everyone who fed us!