University sociologists commissioned by the Family Farm Action Alliance to study the U.S. and global food systems say monopolistic control is no longer about accumulating capital or profits but rather amassing and protecting power.
Concentration in the food system is a tool for corporations to maintain power and control — not to feed people, the alliance stated in a press release.
The report calls for redistributing power for a more equitable and resilient food system.
The report builds on the work of Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, who teach political economy at the university level in Canada and Israel, respectively.
“They say we should really stop thinking about capitalism as a mode of production, a mode of consumption but as a mode of power,” Phil Howard, a sociologist at Michigan State University and coauthor of the report, said during a webinar on the report’s findings.
He’s not talking about the kind of capitalism that favors fair markets, he said.
“We’re talking about people whose sole goal is to increase their power. So they get involved in the food system not to feed people but to increase their power, he said.
That’s why, for instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they could stand aside while farmers weren’t getting paid for their hogs and euthanizing hogs and people were going hungry and standing in line at food banks, he said.
“At the same time, these billionaires are exporting meat to China and arguing that they should not face the same regulations other industries have because of this rationale that they’re feeding people,” he said.
“They’re not feeding people; they’re just increasing their power. And so they’re happy to continue to gain power at the expense of everyone else,” he said.
To start talking about redistributing power is to challenge the enormous advantages those firms have in policies and subsidies, which smaller firms don’t have, that prevent markets from working the way they would if those firms didn’t have so much power, he said.
Power can be built up through the diversity of different kinds of organizations and diversity of scale, but it’s going to take multiple approaches to redistribute power, said Mary Hendrickson, a sociologist at the University of Missouri and lead author of the report.
“It takes multiple approaches, the policy arena, the antitrust arena, contract law, but also just starting to take power in terms of building cooperatives and … just rethinking at the very basic level as consumers and as producers where we want to participate in it,” she said.
That doesn’t sound concrete, and the report is not saying here’s what needs to be done, she said.
“We’re just saying that here’s the system and we have to think about it differently and we have to start engaging with it differently. And it’s going to be a really tough challenge,” she said.