For years Phil Howard has been proving that a picture is worth a thousand words – or more – with his visualisations of food industry structures. These reveal the growing concentration and connections between the ever fewer firms that control more and more of the markets across the food system, from seeds to fast food chains. Now he has written a short book – Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat* – that develops these further. In the book he takes a political economy approach to understanding what this concentration means for power relations in the food system.
An associate professor at Michigan State University, his focus in the nine chapters is largely on what has been happening in the USA. He discusses the re-interpreting of antitrust in the USA and its impact on supermarkets, convenience stores and fast food outlets before looking at consolidation in distributors. In looking at packaged foods and beverages he takes beer, soy milk and bagged salad as examples. The soy theme is picked up in the next chapter on commodity processing where soybeans are one of his examples, the others being dairy and pork. Next, when considering farming and ranching, he looks at how tax payer funds have “reinforced the advantages larger-scale operations at the expense of smaller operations” in soybeans, milk, pork and leafy greens production.
As the seed industry graphic above illustrates there has been considerable concentration there, as seeds and chemicals are increasingly linked in complex relationships (see also The Future Control of Food). Livestock genetics are even more concentrated with a resulting growing homogeneity. Even the organics movement has been undermined by what he calls ‘stealth ownership’ by major food companies with pressures put on standards. While he sees various counter-movements that resist ‘dominant food and agricultural firm’s efforts to increase their power’ they have ‘failed to reverse trends toward increasing their market share’.
While currently he sees various positive feedbacks leading to further concentration he also sees various negative feedback possible that would undermine this.
Philip Howard is also President of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.