Why Big Food is Winning

Article by Michael Pollan in NYT Sunday Magazine

Why has the food movement accomplished so little against Big Food in various campaigns to regulate and restrict the damage to the health of humans, animals, soil, and water by a system dominated by commodity production and giant corporations? 

Michael Pollan, in the October 5 NYT Magazine issue on 21st Century agriculture, lays out how the corporate opposition—from the Grocery Manufacturers Association to the front group Farmers and Ranchers Alliance—undercut attempts at reform.

The continuing problems are familiar: ever-greater applications of toxic pesticides and herbicides; manure in the water instead of the soil; ubiquitous antibiotics in animals for weight gain rather than health remedies; subsidized commodity production mostly for export and ethanol; a human population with an epidemic of obesity and diabetes; the list goes on. Very little of this has changed over the past eight years, and some farm and food problems have worsened.

As Pollan notes, "The administration undertook an ambitious campaign to tackle climate change by stringently regulating industries responsible for greenhouse gases, notably energy and transportation. For whatever reason, though, the administration chose not to confront one of the largest emitters of all: agriculture."

Money talks, and the good food movement has little of that compared to Big Food, and there is little immediate hope of change from Washington. However, Pollan argues, the latter companies are vulnerable to the demands of customers and members of the public who want cleaner food not dependent upon abuse of farmworkers, animals, or the land: "Though still a minority, the eaters who care about these questions have come to distrust Big Food and reject what it is selling. Looking for options better aligned with their values, they have created, purchase by purchase, a $50 billion alternative food economy, comprising organic food, local food and artisanal food. Call it Little Food. And while it is still tiny in comparison with Big Food, it is nevertheless the fastest-growing sector of the food economy.

"While Big Food can continue to forestall change in Washington, that strategy simply will not succeed in the marketplace. There, Big Food is struggling to adapt to a rapidly shifting landscape it cannot control. That’s why it’s gobbling up organic and artisanal brands, hoping to learn the secret of their success — which, of course, is simply that they understand and respect the values of the new food consumer better than Big Food does. Some large food companies are voluntarily changing their practices in response to the concerns of these consumers, whether about antibiotics, animal welfare or the welfare of farmworkers. One future of food politics may lie in grass-roots campaigns targeted not at politicians in Washington but directly at Big Food and its consumers, taking aim at its Achilles’ heel: those precious brands."

Find the New York Times article here

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