By Joe Romano,
Warren Buffett, the man who heavily backed President Barack Obama's reelection bid, recently made the largest transaction in food industry history, when he and other investors made a leveraged buyout of H.J. Heinz and Company for 23.2 billion dollars in cash. While this is a massive merger, the trend toward consolidation of giant food companies may not stop here. According to Michael Balaban of Forbes magazine and other industry sources, "Heinz is a stepping stone to a larger food conglomerate ... up next for a mega-deal could be the Campbell Soup Company, or even Kraft." Likewise, CNNMoney is reporting that "merger activity has been hot this year" signaling "that other companies will now want to follow Buffett's lead and look to the grocery shelves for merger opportunities."
We are not talking about farmers or chefs who are toiling to deliver the best quality food possible, instead we are talking about mega-moguls who view food solely as a source of profit. "Big Food merits a fresh look," declares Reuters and New York Times financial analyst, Quentin Webb. "Companies that are purveyors of meals, sauces, and spreads may offer better value than is immediately obvious."
Webb states the motives behind Big Money's move toward Big Food coldly, clearly, and concisely: "Food-makers' strong finances may have staying power ... built around strong brands, relentlessly promoted and rejuvenated. Technological disruption is minimal. Developing markets offer promise. Profitability is strong, and holds remarkably steady."
Since 2007 there have been at least 1,857 mergers and acquisitions in the food industry sector alone. What this means to the consumer is that a small handful of rich and powerful people are increasingly responsible for putting food on the forks of families, not just in America, but around the world.
But while Time Magazine is announcing a "Mergers and Acquisitions Boom!" and declaring that "corporate leaders are finally feeling frisky again," food watchers like Michael Pollan question "whether or not there is a 'food movement' in America worthy of the name — that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system."
Indeed, Proposition 37, an initiative to label genetically modified foods, a simple change in food labeling favored by more than 90 percent of Americans, failed in California after the Big Food industry, including some of Warren Buffett's companies, spent a million dollars a day, for a total of $46 million, to defeat the initiative. "This wasn't an election so much as a sale," said Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm and chairman of Just Label It!, a national G.M.O. labeling campaign.
And President Obama is not going to take on Big Food by himself, either. He has not followed up on his campaign promise to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients, neither has he taken a stand against proposed legislation to sharply cut back on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps.
The New York Times Food columnist Mark Bittman says that "when Obama has been pressured on issues, like gay rights, immigration, and the Keystone XL pipeline, he has responded positively. But he hasn't been pushed on food." Like Michael Pollen, Bittman says that the reason "progressives haven't made Obama do much" for our food is that "there isn't a real food movement — yet!"
The attendees at the It Takes a Region conference, held on February 10, 11, and 12, 2013 in Saratoga Springs, New York, do not agree; they are the backbone of our regional Food Movement.
The conference marked the twenthieth anniversary of the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, or NESAWG, an association of about 500 organizational and 1,500 individual members from the 12-state Northeast region from Maine to West Virginia. By taking a regional approach, we can each grow our local efforts to develop a broad and truly sustainable and resilient regional food system. We can build upon our "thousand points of local" to achieve optimal scale, location, variety and supply for all communities and all supply chain participants. In other words, NESAWG is leading the way toward a robust regional Food Movement. GreenStar sent a delegation of six, including both staff and Council, and many of our local members, producers, academics, and local food system partners attended as well.
After a fun and inspiring opening retrospective, the first Keynote was on "Race, Gender and Class in the Food Movement" and was delivered by Angela Park, from Diversity Matters. She opened the conference by making it clear that our Food Movement will not succeed unless we include everyone. She offered a candid examination of the institutional underpinnings of race, class, and gender biases and shared her perspectives on the past two decades of social justice work in the environmental and food movements.
Then we moved into separate groups, sharing initiatives and exploring subjects like "Food Hubs and Supply Chains," "Access to Land," "Urban Agriculture Policy," "Youth and Students in Our Movement," and "Building Your Advocacy Toolbox: Strategies for Successful District Organizing on the Food & Farm Bill."
But after lunch, the hands-on work began as attendees split into work groups to tackle the pieces that make up a local food system: "Diet, Access, and Geography," "Food Systems Planning," "Labor and Trade," "Infrastructure," "Distribution," "Research and Assessment," and "Food Safety."
Those joining these individual groups were expected to work on their chosen topics not only for the next two days of the conference, but to build on work that had begun in previous years and would continue long after we all returned to our communities. What immediately became clear was that the attendees were only the tip of the iceberg; each represented much larger numbers of people working for food system change in their communities. Most striking were the many wise and focused young people attending the conference. For example, there were teens who had funded local food initiatives by growing, processing, packaging, distributing, and marketing food products for retail sale. All of them were doing committed Food Movement work in addition to their school work, chores and, for some, their jobs. Since the conference, GreenStar has already approached one such group, from Buffalo, NY, about carrying their products in our stores.
The upcoming Farm Bill and the Food Safety Modernization Act, both slated to become law in 2013, will offer the opportunity for both Big Food and our Food Movement to get what we want. Big Food uses their money to lobby to make sure that Big Government policies work for them; to have any chance, the Food Movement must harness its people power.
In 1905, after taking food preservatives out of his ketchup, H.J. Heinz joined forces with the Roosevelt administration to restrict their use by his lower-price competitors in the name of Food Safety. It was a classic case of Progressive Era complicity between Big Food and Big Government.
Similarly, Warren Buffett lobbies for "progressive" big-government policies that profit his companies. He is a proponent of the inheritance tax, which often forces small family businesses to sell out to his company, Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett backs President Obama and his green energy agenda, which subsidizes Buffett's expanding wind and solar portfolio. This cozy relationship with the Obama administration may also help him profit from legislation coming this year as part of the Farm and Food Safety Bills.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that "an increasingly centralized food supply means that a food contaminated in production can be rapidly shipped to many states causing a widespread outbreak." But Big Food lobbyists are working to ensure that the 2012 Farm Bill and the Food Safety Modernization Act include provisions that will make it harder for smaller farmers, producers, and distributors to stay in business, and none that will alleviate the problems that cause outbreaks in the first place. Any added work or equipment will surely place an unbalanced burden on small farmers, leading to their eventual elimination or absorption into the expanding maw of "consolidation."
While the Food Movement works to create local food systems that create better health, local jobs, and stronger community-based businesses, these corporate giants are working toward one large, subsidized and profitable Big Food system. They have the money, the power, and the influence to see it through. The Food Movement must grow quickly, and more people need to get involved to protect their food. The trouble is, the public is largely ignorant of what is contained in the Farm Bill or Food Safety Act.
Warren Buffett says, "When you combine ignorance and leverage, you get some pretty interesting results." He is right. We at GreenStar, the members of NESAWG, Michael Pollan, and Mark Bittman all know what is at stake. Members of the Food Movement must educate ourselves and tell our friends, neighbors, and legislators what we know.
Over the next few weeks, GreenStar will provide information about both bills to our members and our community. If we know what the issues are and let our many voices be heard, maybe we won't have to find out what kind of "interesting results" Big Food has in store for us.
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