The ‘Clean Food Movement’ is No Match Against Politically Powerful ‘Big Food’

Journalist, author and clean food advocate Michael Pollan’s essay reveals a comprehensive peek into why the Clean Food Movement is no match for the political power of Big Food.


The power of the food movement is the force of its ideas and the appeal of its aspirations — to build community, to reconnect us with nature and to nourish both our health and the health of the land….the [clean] food movement — a collection of disparate groups that seek change in food and agriculture but don’t always agree with one another on priorities. Under that big tent you will find animal rights activists who argue with sustainable farmers about meat; hunger activists who disagree with public-health advocates seeking to make soda and candy ineligible for food stamps; environmentalists who argue with sustainable cattle ranchers about climate change; and so on. To call this a movement is an act of generosity and hope. But whatever it is, it has been no match for Big Food, at least in Washington…


Despite lacking the political power and deep pockets of Big Food however, the ‘Little Movement that Could’ continues to march on…


But…behind the [Big Food] industry’s wall of political power, there indeed lurks a vulnerability. That vulnerability is the conscience of the American eater, who in the past decade or so has taken a keen interest in the question of where our food comes from, how it is produced and the impact of our everyday food choices on the land, on the hands that feed us, on the animals we eat and, increasingly, on the climate. 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.

 


Big Food Strikes Back

New York Times Magazine

…Obama left the distinct impression during [his initial] campaign that he grasped the food movement’s critique of the food system and shared its aspirations for reforming it.

But aspirations are cheap — and naïveté can be expensive…

In order to follow the eight-year drama starring Big Food and both Obamas — for soon after the inauguration, the first lady would step in to play a leading role — it’s important to know what Big Food is. Simply put, it is the $1.5 trillion industry that grows, rears, slaughters, processes, imports, packages and retails most of the food Americans eat. Actually, there are at least four distinct levels to this towering food pyramid. At its base stands Big Ag, which consists primarily of the corn-and-soybean-industrial complex in the Farm Belt, as well as the growers of the other so-called commodity crops and the small handful of companies that supply these farmers with seeds and chemicals. Big Ag in turn supplies the feed grain for Big Meat — all the animals funneled into the tiny number of companies that ultimately process most of the meat we eat — and the raw ingredients for the packaged-food sector, which transforms those commodity crops into the building blocks of processed food: the corn into high-fructose corn syrup and all the other chemical novelties on the processed-food ingredient label, and the soy into the oil in which much of fast food is fried. At the top of the Big Food pyramid sit the supermarket retailers and fast-food franchises.

Each of these sectors is dominated by a remarkably small number of gigantic firms…

Each industry sector is represented in Washington by one or more powerful lobbying organizations. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (G.M.A.) represents the household brand names, like General Mills, Campbell’s, PepsiCo, Nestlé, that make and market the packaged foods and beverages in the supermarket. The North American Meat Institute represents Big Meat, working alongside each animal’s dedicated trade association (the National Pork Producers Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Chicken Council). The American Farm Bureau Federation ostensibly speaks for the growers of the commodity crops. The National Restaurant Association is the voice of the fast-food chains. The euphemistically named CropLife America speaks for the pesticide industry.

These groups each have their own parochial furrows to plow in Washington, but they frequently operate as one [single entity]…

In recent years the various sectors have been driven closer by the emergence of a common adversary: a food movement bent on checking their dominance in the marketplace and their freedom to operate with a minimum of oversight…

…[During the early days of his tenure] the Obama administration mounted what would turn out to be its most serious challenge to the food industry. In fulfillment of Obama’s pledge to America’s small farmers and ranchers, the administration began an ambitious antitrust initiative against Big Food, investigating the market power and anticompetitive practices of the poultry, dairy, cattle and seed industries…Obama had launched the most serious government challenge to the power of Big Food since Teddy Roosevelt went after the Meat Trust a century ago, but in the face of opposition it simply evaporated…

[Over the next several years] Big Food scored a series of victories over even the most reasonable attempts to rein in its excesses…

But perhaps we will look back on Big Food’s single most important victory during the Obama years as one it didn’t even have to break a sweat achieving, since it involved an issue on which it wasn’t even challenged. 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…

Yet the future of food will be decided not only in the corridors of power, but in the wider culture as well, and here Big Food has a big and growing problem — one that some of its political victories have only exacerbated. For example, the industry’s $100 million fight to stop G.M.O. labeling has pitted many food companies against the overwhelming majority of their consumers, who tell pollsters they want their food labeled…

As the Obamas prepare to leave the White House, Big Food can congratulate itself on retaining its political grip on Washington. It seems very unlikely that the next occupant of the White House is going to pose as stiff a challenge. Donald Trump professes to love fast food, and Hillary Clinton has longstanding ties to Big Food: Tyson was one of Bill Clinton’s first political patrons, and as a lawyer in Arkansas, Hillary Clinton served on the board at Walmart [and served as counsel to Monsanto*]…

[Nonetheless] these battles [over the past eight years between Big Food and the Clean Food Movement] have exposed weaknesses in the facade of Big Food’s power, soft spots that some grass-roots food activists have recently figured out how to exploit…

 


(*insert: CFL).