How can a food system that offers so much variety be constricting consumer choice?

February 2010

Hey Farm Aid,

I read your column on concentration in agriculture last month, but I'm confused. You talk about monopolies and fewer consumer choices, but when I walk into a supermarket, I see a gazillion brands and products. I don't understand how concentration is actually hurting consumers.

Any help clarifying would be great,

Spokane, WA

This is a great question, Stephen. You're highlighting a profoundly puzzling paradox: how can a food system that offers so much variety be constricting consumer choice?

For sure, when you walk into your supermarket, you and every other consumer are bombarded with thousands of brand names and products vying for your attention. As shoppers, our dilemma feels more like "How could I ever choose?" rather than, "What happened to my right to choose?" It's exhausting.

But those thousands of brands are something of an illusion. Concentration in our food system, as I discussed in last month's column, has been restricting, not expanding, our choice as consumers.

All right, Stephen, I'm rolling up my sleeves. Let's dig into this a little deeper.

cereal aisleChoice in the Cereal Aisle?
You know the image. Stroll down the cereal aisle and you'll see every flavor and variety known to humankind: from loops of fruit to clusters of oats and honey, from peanut to chocolate to strawberry to berry berry, your breakfast choices are thrillingly limitless. Right?

Well, not so fast. While we may have a seeming cornucopia of fruity flavors and shapes of flakes to choose from there are really just a few companies who own all the brands you see and who make almost all of the decisions about the food we eat and how it is grown. The illusion of choice covers up a very dangerous reality: never before in history have we had just a handful of mammoth companies controlling every step of our food system from farm to your cereal aisle!

Lift the Veil
Among the more troubling aspects of the thousands of "options" presented at the grocery store is that they really boil down to just few raw materials: corn and soy.

Whether as corn-based sweeteners, like high fructose corn syrup, or as a major component of animal feed, and even in your can of Cheez Whiz or bottle of beer, corn is ubiquitous in our food supply. The same is true for soybeans, which processors crank out as a plethora of food additives like soybean oils and lecithin, which we eat everyday in processed foods.

One reason these two characters end up everywhere is because they're incredibly cheap. Thanks to a series of farm policies, farmers have been encouraged to produce loads of corn and soy while the prices they receive have often dropped far below the cost of production. While this is bad for farmers, it's turned out to be a pretty cool deal for the factory farms, and soft drink and snack makers who use all this cheap, excess product as inputs for mass-produced meat and processed food. As a result, the relative cheapness of these foods help manufacturers set retail prices below those of otherwise-competitive, healthier alternatives, further constraining our access to better options.

What's more, the supply of these raw goods is under the tight control of just a few companies. According to USDA's most recent data, 85% of all corn and 91% of all soy grown in the U.S. is from genetically engineered (GE) seed under the control of just one company, Monsanto. This reliance on so few seed varieties has seriously eroded the genetic diversity of these crops, presenting a complete lack of choice for farmers who could benefit from varieties suited to their local geography and climate. This is to say nothing of the dangers genetic erosion presents for the resiliency of our food supply. Dominance in the seed sector has also afforded companies enough market power to inflate seed costs to farmers. For us consumers, whether or not we want to eat foods containing genetically-engineered ingredients, we have few alternatives and no labels to tell us which products contain them. The Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering, a Farm Aid-funded organization, recently released a report that covers this predicament in great detail and is worth a deeper look.

Show me the money
People talk about voting with your dollar, but as a conscious consumer, how do you know where you're placing your vote?

The concentration of market power in the food sector has left more of your dollar in the hands of corporations, with just pennies left for our farmers. Over the past few decades, the farm's share of the dollar you spend at the checkout, sometimes referred to as the food retail dollar, has plummeted. In bad years, it can be so low that droves of farmers leave the land for good. In 1998, this happened in the hog industry. Only $0.12 of every dollar spent on pork in the grocery store went to a hog producer—75% below their share in 1970.

Today, we see the same crisis in the dairy sector, where prices paid to farmers have taken a dive in the past year. But in both the case of pork and dairy, consumers didn't benefit at all—retail prices stayed the same or even increased. Because of their market power, giant processors and retailers have no incentive to pass savings from the farm gate onto consumers. The result? Consumers pay more and farmers get less.

In short: Behind all that supposed supermarket variety is just a handful of companies who not only decide what we eat and how it's grown, but also dictate the prices farmers receive and what we pay in the aisle.

Raise Your Fork!
As a result of all this lack of choice, we're not getting what we need. Today, the USDA reports that the average American falls painfully short of getting recommended servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products. The prevalence of ailments like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and chronic heart disease are mere symptoms of our flawed food system.

It is often stated that industrial production is the only system that can provide consumers with the food choices they desire. But the dominance of just a few companies limits our ability to understand the origins of the products we choose and places a number of barriers to choosing alternatives, such as those that are locally-grown, family-farm identified, organic, hormone- or antibiotic-free, GE-free, and so forth.

Agriculture is by its nature different than other markets. Farmers produce food that is meant to nourish our bodies. They are stewards of our land, pillars of our economy, and carry a cultural heritage cherished in America. We deserve markets that reflect the complex set of needs and services fulfilled by farmers. Farmers deserve markets that give them a fair shake.

With upcoming U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice joint workshops planned to investigate concentration and antitrust issues in agricultural markets, we have unprecedented opportunities to raise awareness of the erosion of choice in our food system and the many implications for consumers and farmers alike. I invite you to join us in the fight to make sure these workshops seriously tackle corporate control of our food system and, in turn, move us toward a real cornucopia of good food options in the grocery aisle.

Photo by Billie Hara, courtesy of Creative Commons

Your thoughtful comments are encouraged, but all comments are held for moderation to protect against spam. Farm Aid does not censor or refuse comments for content unless they are spam or a personal attack.

Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 5:19:23 AM 
Monsanto...more like Mon-satan...
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 6:17:54 AM 
I agree with you completely. Corporations have taken over the food supply without any regard to the health of their customers. It is all about making money.
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 7:14:26 AM 
Yes, I have replied before on corporate dominating the poutry industry.
I have four nice barns empty due to expensive upgrades that I cannot afford.
The family went into this with the company's spec's and they continue to
demand more at growers expense. All poultry growers work very hard (365) days
never a day off. We do what the company wants, but they want more. Please
all farmers need big help.
Thank you,
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 7:25:27 AM 
I continue to say farm subsidies are wrong. There needs to be an effort to force congress to repeal subsidies. American farmers should be allowed to grow food for americans. I am tired of spending $1.00 for bell pepper.
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 7:31:47 AM 
Not only is this concentration bad for farmer's, but it also enriches Monsanto (and others) so that it can provide flawed data to regulatory agencies which base their oversight decisions on these flaws. It is time for the EPA to become involved in the GMO debate because of the environmental consequences of unfettered growth of these altered frankenfoods. In particular, the inclusion of a pesticide gene in corn ensures that consumers are actually ingesting poison with each serving of "food". How can our government be so complacent as to allow this? Money from agribusiness!
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 8:03:32 AM 
Feed yourselves and your neighbors. If you recognize the name brand in the store-avoid it . Odds are you know the name because of ads and not quality. Don't rely on the regulators. They are typically the greasing point for the profiteers.

Buy organic from locals. That way they will not have to take shortcuts in order to meet the prices demanded by these corporations in order to ship it back to us. Get to know the farmer instead of trusting a regulator or profiteer. They have coffee together, estimate profits, and laugh at the consumer and family farmer.

If it is not good for the land, the air, or the water, it is not cheap.

And to all the people who tell me they can't afford pricier food because of their blessed children, YOU ARE THE ONES SPOILING THE LAND FOR YOUR CHILDREN BECAUSE YOU WON"T PAY IT FORWARD. You don't need MORE, you need BETTER. And that doesn't come from many "companies" I know.

Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 8:28:30 AM 
There is tremendous opportunity to vote with your food spending!! Likely 90% of my spending is either with local farms (all meat, eggs, poultry for home use), or organic natural foods available. I was a major foods marketer and, trust me, companies get the message when consumers switch their spending patterns!!
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 9:26:55 AM 
Good point, that it isn't just the different varieties of the same crops, but there is also very little choice in varieties of HOW those crops are farmed.

Sure, the labels are supposed to relate some of that info, but to this day, we really can't yet walk up to the checkout counter knowing the true origins of our food, unless we research outside the grocery store trickery.

Remember when "Natural" meant "organic?"

Monsanto, Dow, and so many others, apparently have the power to actually change the definition of our very words, to fit their pernicious plans.

So much for that good old word, "natural" seems to be on almost every label now, no matter how it is grown.

We need better legislation regulating the advertising and labeling of food, right along with legislation that prohibits dangerous additives and genetic modification.


Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 9:29:51 AM 
Hey, I wouldn't want to eat everything a fly would eat, but I might not want to eat something a fly WOULDN'T EAT!

Think about it. If the bugs wouldn't eat it, why would we?
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 9:41:29 AM 
Arnel, your reply broke my heart because I know you are not alone. The plight of farmers like you should be on the front page of every newspaper in the country, as well as CNN, MSNBC, etc., not the story about Monsanto being named "Company of the Year" in 2009 by Forbes--yes, this is true. CONSUMERS: WAKE UP and pay attention to where your food comes from! We all need to stop supporting corporate food. We need to buy everything we can from our local farmers. We need to exercise and enforce our rights to be able to buy raw milk and locally produced meat products. We should be going to farmers like Arnel with our neighbors and offering to help start a CSA program with him. Buy a share of poultry ahead of time, let him raise the chickens, and everyone wins in the end. I don't know if this is feasible, Arnel, due to contracts or whatever, but this is my dream for you and the rest of the struggling farmers in this country, as well as us consumers. -Amy
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 9:56:45 AM 
Your comparative analysis of our foodstuffs all sprouting from a few sources is interesting. This is not the first time that activists have worked to move food and all other production from the perceived hands of a few to the hands of the masses. What your preaching is exactly what Marx and Lenin used to gain power over the people of Russia. The cooperative farms established by that system served to do many things. They fed the powerful and starved the pheasant. They planted the good earth with the bodies and souls of millions of their citizens who did not agree with the Communist Creed. Russia is gone but we have a shining example of how well these systems work. Look to the west at our melamine laden trading partners in China.
This country has turned so many people against agriculture that we have no youthful people who want to farm or know how to farm. All the small farms have been turned to recreational land. No barns, no equipment, no experience. Ask the starving masses
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 10:25:40 AM 
As a physician I see the end result of industrialized/monopolized agriculture...
obese, unhealthy Americans... both children & adults. Fortunately we can affect companies like Monsanto with our spending habits. As mentioned above, join a CSA, or buy locally produced, or ogranic products. If you recognize the name brand... you probably should not buy it. America can regain its strength by regaining its health: support American jobs, support the family farm and you will support your and your family's health. Plant your own garden. Get schools in your area to plant gardens. There are lots of ways to take our power back & away from corporations.
H. Easton, D.O
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 10:39:08 AM 
What is interesting is that lately when corporate control of food is questioned and activists work to educate people and push for smaller-scale organic and sustainable AGRICULTURE, those activists are increasingly accused of being anti-agriculture and now communists, which is completely absurd and smacks of typical fear tactics, probably being used by the very corporations being questioned. No one here is asking for a communist or socialist approach to agriculture. What we are asking for is support for our family farmers so that they can make a decent living via capitalism, which is impossible when huge Big Ag firms are given government subsidies and control of the food supply. (Note: As of 2005 four corporations controlled the majority of meat processing in the US.) As consumers, we are also asking for access to local food. We are tired of GMO's being rammed down our throats and not labeled as such, and of having HFCS added to everything. We are not anti-ag; quite the contrary.
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 10:43:31 AM 
Thank you to everyone who has contributed for this wealth of information.
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 10:51:05 AM 
The statement that young people do not want to farm is incorrect. There is a growing movement of more and more young people getting into farming. “Crop mobs” are sprouting up and kids who have college degrees are turning away from life behind a cubicle and getting into growing good, healthy food. There are many examples of this and I encourage you, if you are a frustrated farmer, to spend a little time online researching this. The sustainable ag apprenticeship at UC Santa Cruz in California overflows with applications each year. In my local area college students are interning on a local farm, once conventional now organic. The “Freshman Farmer” program has taken off, the Small Farms Conservancy is kicking into high gear, good things are happening all over the country. I am starting my farm business next year and my young cousins farm and have made a life of it. Maybe this will give you hope because it sounds like you can use some.
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 12:14:13 PM 
Beautifully written and so appreciated. This helps consciousness rise globally!
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 12:37:00 PM 
I totally agree with Mr./Mrs. Easton!!! It comes down to where WE are spending our dollars! We NEED to get people informed about the truths of our food industry which could and hopefully will influence how and where they spend their money. There are many local farms, farmers markets and an organic food co-op where we live that gladly accept our money. We, as in my wife and I (and 2 young children), grow a lot of our own food and meat, but what we can't grow, we buy locally! We have a small farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. If a high percentage of people do their part to see to it that the "Monsanto's" out there aren't getting our money, they can't continue to function as a corporation! No money coming in = NO MONSANTO! This is a great article, thank you for putting the information out there for people!!!
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 1:30:28 PM 
Thank you for your eloquently spoken article. How true it is! We as consumers need to rely on "our" own inner knowledge and research, so as to make well educated decisions about feeding our bodies and stimulating our brains.
We have fallen into a rut of government trust; with the notion that the FDA and other government run agencies have our best interest at heart, and that our health and nutrition is important to them; It isn't true across the board though...they speak in their campaign ads, that the products they offer are in fact "good for you" food, but it isn't true, most of the ingredients are overly processed crap that once started out as wholesome, but has been stripped of it's nutrients.
Each year thousands of "new" processed foods are introduced into the market, most of which is not wholesome, healthy or good for us.

Stacey Rae
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 4:22:28 PM 
Great article but I would like to add the issue of the impact of our current agricultural system has on rural economies. The delta region in my state of Mississippi contains some of the most fertile and productive soil in the entire world yet it has the lowest per capita income in the nation. Meanwhile, agricultural giants led by Monsanto make billions of dollars a year off the land that produces primarilly cotton and soybeans; two crops that require massive amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and defoliants (all sold by Monsanto)to maximize production.
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 4:28:15 PM 
As an avid outdoorsman who grew up on my grandparents dairy farm I have seen the loss of thousands of acres of tillable land and open spaces. These farms have perished because of economics. Taxes are so high on the land and crop prices are so low farmers have little choice but sell off to developers. We all lose when tillable land and open space is developed.
Taxes are not going to go down anytime soon. Farmers crop revenues aren't going to increase until they are able to control the distribution and costs of their goods. The 'Buy Local' campaign is a great start to knowing what is in your food, where it comes from and paying the money to where it should go. We all need to support these grass root efforts to regain a hold on our personal destiny. I urge anyone who reads these blogs to look further into Buying Local and becoming healthier in the process.
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 7:58:05 PM 
You are so right! Rock on!
Anonymous @ 3/4/2010 9:09:10 PM 
Twenty-five years ago I was advocating against Monsanto,Dow etc as polluting chemical companies, and now they are our major 'food' suppliers. Absolutely freakish. Our food is being created in laboratories. Read the labels, no one has those ingredients in their kitchens. Grow organic for your families. A little research goes a long way. Tomatoes can be crushed in a food processor, skins and all, in moments. Throw in some fresh herbs and freeze. You can have healthy sauce on the cheap all winter long. Food that fuels your body, not sickens it. I love this movement that is taking place and am grateful to Michell Obama for her support. Buy local! Grow your own! Keep a few chickens! It's fun and good for you/us.

Donna Vabulas
Anonymous @ 3/5/2010 1:00:01 AM 
your article is right on the money, we need to bring down Monsanto to have any hope of saving our bio diversity and getting the abomination called GE crops and foods off the shelf or at very least labeled so we have a choice, Monsanto and other GE ilk will fight us every step of the way, but we as eaters have the last say by shoping local, organic, and avoiding GE food as much as possible, no easy task but it must be done, for help with choices for GE free food, get the Non GMO shopping guide at
Steve F
Anonymous @ 3/5/2010 12:36:14 PM 
There is hope, and it lies with you. My family has a small family market farm in the Northeast. We sell vegetables through CSA and at local markets. We work hard, but it's a good life, and we're not owned by any corporation. We are building moveable hoophouses, allowing us to extend our season and grow throughout the winter. We know many local farmers, many young, who've been doing this for over five years successfully. Recently, at winter markets around here farmers are making a living from their harvests year round. Farming may not be a lifestyle that will make you wealthy, but what is wealth? Our values in this country have become skewed. Time to get back to basic values, and respect what we have, not what we think we must have...
Maggie M
Anonymous @ 3/6/2010 9:15:06 PM 

A gift
as a multitude of consensuses
spreads though us and on to others.
Anonymous @ 3/7/2010 4:12:35 PM 
Seriously, how much would the costs of foods increase if the giant food monopolies were broken up? As much as I would love to see their demise, how quickly and who would fill these shoes and how long would it be before food sources were monopolized again? This whole country has become one big franchise after another - whether it is retail, fast food, real estate, TV, radio, hotels - the list goes on and on. Small business is disappering faster then the ozone layer.
Anonymous @ 3/10/2010 10:21:01 AM 
I never thought I'd live to see a box of Post cereal for 5.39/box -- Just Bunches it's called...other boxes are 4.89--at CVS or my local grocer. buy the store brand now at about 2.50/box. And I thought Post was about making their cereals affordable--remeber their campign a few yrs back? When I called and asked them about it they let me know they are now owned by Kraft or some other Comglomerate! Wonderful. And Lays potatoe chips are 3.99/bag--when will it stop?
Anonymous @ 3/11/2010 6:48:58 AM 
I would like nothing more then to see healthier options at the grocery store but it goes beyond that....we have been raised in a society wrongly (or lacked completely in) educated about healthy eatting. We have started raising and baking our own food so our kids were not raised on junk but we can't afford to buy "healthy" at the grocery store. It would be great to see these huge coorporations go down the toilet and for the small farms to prosper once more but the only way to see a really drastic change is if the price of healthy foods can stay in line with the low-incomes of the average American family. That is why I love BUY LOCAL!! I know that every "carefully managed" dime I'm spending is going right to the farmer (and most times the prices are the same as the grocery store now). Keep it up, love your dedication!

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