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Does a surge in commentary regarding the influence of Wall Street and big ag on food security mean the food system is about to get occupied?

The Occupy movement keeps gaining momentum, with protests flaring up across the globe this past weekend. The New York Times has reported on how protesters are eating, and in the past few days, GristMother Jones, and The Huffington Post have all run thought-provoking analysis pieces suggesting that it may be time for those who care about ‘good food’ to join the protests. This sentiment seems to be gaining a whole lot of steam with a whole lot of speed.

In addition to seeing commentary from all corners addressing the influence of Wall Street and large corporate interests on the agricultural industry (and regulation of it) hit the presses in a matter of days, word emerged yesterday that a gathering to specifically address these concerns is being organized for Saturday, October 29th at Zuccotti Park, home base of the protests. Could this be the beginning of an amplification of the debate over food system concerns? Here’s a breakdown of the main concerns expressed in this week’s brushfire of posts.

So how is Wall Street connected to the food on our plates? Let us count (a few) of the ways.

1. Deregulation leads to profit-driven speculation in food markets

In her piece for Grist called, ‘Why the Food Movement Should Occupy Wall Street,’ Siena Chrisman explains how deregulation in commodity trading has increased profit-driven speculation by investment banks on food crops, driving prices up in ways that have had real, frightening consequences.

Chrisman: “In 2008 and 2009, the U.N. estimated that an additional 130 million people were driven into hunger by the food price bubble. Spontaneous food riots broke out in dozens of countries where chronic hunger is a reality.”

In a piece for Mother Jones called ‘Foodies, Get Thee to Occupy Wall Street’  Tom Philpott explains that in 1991, Goldman Sachs and other investment firms began bundling food commodities together into what sound terrifyingly like the housing derivatives that brought down our financial markets. Sliced this way and that, the investments were originally boring and safe, but when the U.S. started to invest heavily in biofuel, investors saw food commodity indexes as a place to get in on that action, which greatly increased world food prices. When the food price bubble burst with the rest of the financial markets (a relief to starving people around the world), many institutional investors (like the fund  managing your 401k) lost money…but Goldman didn’t. Philpott writes, “It had rigged the instrument so that the bank made money no matter what.”

Well-played, Wall Street?!

2. Profit-driven speculation drives up land prices

The next problem? As food becomes more valuable, so does the land it grows on. As pressure mounts on small farms to sell their land to corporations, once that land is sold, it’s often converted to growing large scale cash crops, or is even simply left fallow. In the Grist piece, Chrisman writes:

“‘Land grabs’ have affected tens of thousands of people around the world who have been driven off their land — often violently — with little or no compensation, given no say in the process, and left with no recourse. For most of them, land is their livelihood; without it, the future is bleak.”

3. Giant corporations monopolize food production and distribution

The third problem? Lack of diversity in who runs our food system. Dave Murphy breaks down the monopoly math for Huffington Post called If You Eat, You Better Occupy Wall Street(ok, I think we’re seeing a pattern here!)

Murphy: “four firms control 84 percent of beef packing, 66 percent of pork production and one company, Monsanto, controls patents on more than 93 percent of soybeans and 80 percent of corn grown in the U.S.”

Philpott points out that the monopoly angle gets even more ridiculous when you look at companies that make both seeds and pesticides:

“As of 2007, six companies owned 75 percent of the global pesticide market, and four companies sold half of the globe’s seeds, ETC Group reckons. Here’s the kicker: Three of them—Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dupont—are on both lists. The agrichemical makers have transitioned into seed barons, genetically engineering their major seed lines to resist their own herbicides.”

This near monopoly, Murphy and Philpott argue, has given the ruling Big Ag companies incredible influence over regulation decisions made by congress.

Murphy: “Despite a recent Reuters poll showing that 93 percent Americans support mandatory labeling of GMO foods, politicians in Washington and Monsanto lobbyists have so far blocked this basic right.”

It also gives the big players the power to act against price increases by making things harder on their suppliers, rather than raising consumer prices.

Philpott: “In antitrust theory, when four players control more than 40 percent of a market, they’re said to wield “market power”—that is, they can manipulate the prices they charge consumers and the terms on which they deal with their suppliers. So, rather than raise prices, the food industry has slashed costs—at the expense of workers, farmers, and the environment.”

When Big Ag companies control their suppliers, Philpott says, safety conditions get worse, independent farms go out of business, farm workers and meatpackers make less money, and environmental hazards get ignored. Not to mention that 80% of America’s antibiotics go into livestock, which US public health officials have acknowledged is leading to the emergence of Superbugs…

Chrisman, Murphy, and Philpott each argue that the roots of the problems in our food system lie in the same soil as the roots of everything else Occupy Wall Street seeks to address: when monied voices are listened to over the voices of the masses, things tend to get really bad for the masses. It’s not that traders in food commodities or people buying farm land as investments are necessarily immoral–we just can’t look at a system required for our existence simply in terms of maximizing profits for corporate entities. It’s not a sport – our food supply is a matter of life and death, and without a system that works for everyone, we might not survive.

Talk about the 1% or the 99% all day, but 100% of us need to eat. And we should have a system that allows us all to eat well.


Reading List

Siena Chrisman on Grist: ‘Why the Food Movement Should Occupy Wall Street

Tom Philpott on Mother Jones:Foodies, Get Thee to Occupy Wall Street

Dave Murphy on Huffington Post:’If You Eat, You Better Occupy Wall Street’


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One Response to Is The Food System About To Get Occupied?

  1. Pingback: How I Trick People Into Thinking I Can Cook « revel mama

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