How often do we pause to consider the social and environmental costs associated with bagged salad? Philip Howard’s Concentration and Power in the Food System challenges us to think about the broader consequences of corporate control over the food we eat. His excellent and engaging book examines both how the global food system has come to be dominated by a small number of truly giant firms and the wider environmental and social implications of this trend.
Howard adopts a critical approach to analyzing the problem of corporate concentration in the food sector, focusing on how firms maximize not just profits but also power in the marketplace. In the food system, corporate concentration has reached considerable levels at all stages, from farm to plate. As Howard documents, just six firms control over 75 percent of the global seed and agrochemical market, and this number is set to drop to just four firms if the recently proposed agribusiness megamergers are given the green light by regulators. Only four firms control over 70 percent of the world’s trade in grain. And in the retail sector, the top four firms control over half of the US grocery market, with just one firm—Walmart—capturing a whopping 33 percent of that market. Most economists consider sectors in which the top four firms control more than 40–50 percent of the market to be uncompetitive.
Howard’s insightful analysis reveals multiple strategies used by large agribusiness firms to maximize their power. These strategies are employed in distinct ways in different nodes of the food supply chain. Food retail companies, for example, have actively engaged in campaigns to weaken antitrust legislation in the United States, which has allowed them to dominate huge swaths of the market. This dominant position has enabled them to further consolidate their power through practices such as demanding lower prices from their suppliers. Food-processing companies have worked to engineer demand for highly processed or packaged foods. Commodity-trading firms use their market power to manipulate prices in ways that enable them to gain financially. Large-scale farms are situated to receive the lion’s share of government subsidies, enabling them to further expand. And the seed and chemical industry has pushed for more stringent intellectual property rights to protect their innovations and prevent other firms from entering the market.
The environmental and social consequences of these corporate strategies are significant. To return to bagged salad, firms such as Dole and Chiquita have taken what were previously unbranded greens and packaged them into a branded convenience item with a market worth over $4 billion per year. Beyond the obvious profit grab of branding lettuce, the product itself contains a huge amount of virtual water that is then transported far and wide through the grocery retail networks. The large-scale salad operations have also been implicated in instances of bacterial contamination that spread widely through these networks. Relying on prewashed and processed salad also has a broader “deskilling” effect in society, as even the simple task of making a salad “from scratch” is framed and marketed by firms as somehow being difficult and time-consuming.
In the input sector, corporate concentration has contributed to a narrowing of crop genetic diversity and a growing use of certain agrochemicals associated with genetically modified seeds produced by the same companies. The loss of biodiversity reduces the resilience of agricultural production systems, making them more vulnerable to shocks such as climate change. Commodity-trading firms profit from food aid programs that serve to undercut prices for local farmers in poor countries, while at the same time framing their role as “feeding the world” (or what Howard dubs “grainwashing”). Because of their capacity to speculate on commodity markets, they also profited handsomely during the 2008 food price crisis when food prices fluctuated sharply. Even the organics sector has been subject to the trend of increased concentration. Many organic food brands have been purchased by large food-processing companies who operate as “stealth owners” that continue to use the name brand of the firms that they have purchased.
What to do? Like many books on the food system, this book ends with a half hopeful chapter suggesting that small-scale alternative food movements might be able to tame the beast. While such alternatives are necessary to show that another food system is possible, the book’s analysis itself does not leave a lot of room for optimism. Howard also suggests that the growing size of corporations may be their own undoing, as the public becomes more aware of the inequalities and impacts associated with their dominance. The book could have said more about the potential leverage points for broader policy change, such as more stringent regulations at the state and international levels to curb corporate concentration and its effects.
Howard gives us much to ponder regarding the problem of corporate control in the food system. In presenting his analysis, he supplements his arguments using visualizations that provide powerful ways to illustrate the trends he examines. His analysis is sophisticated, yet highly accessible—an approach that will appeal to scholars across different disciplines. The book is sure to become essential reading for students of the global environmental politics of food.