The vast majority of our current global food-scape is controlled by a very small number of corporations who view food purely as means to profit. Nothing new here, food has been a means for profit since the advent of money, however never before has the food game been dominated so comprehensively by so few players.
Historically the food market has been made up of hundreds of thousands of small to medium sized growers, producers and vendors each operating independently and servicing their own local regions or a thin export niche. Today however, transnational corporations are growing ever larger and more powerful, and the inevitable outcome of a food oligopoly is now upon us.
For the last few years, we, the general public have been getting glimpses behind the curtains of these industrial food systems and we're not very happy about it. We are seeing gross injustice to small scale farmers, disadvantaged societies, animals and our environment - all for the sake of increasing the financial return on investments for shareholders.
So... what are we to do about it? How can li'l ol’ me make a difference? These mega-corps have so much power now that resistance seems futile.
Well, let's think about how the game works. The only way these corporations survive is because lots and lots of little people, like you and me, feed them with our dollars. It's a two way relationship. They feed us and we feed them. And why do we feed them instead of feeding the small family farm or the local providor down the street? Well, these days it's probably more because the small family farm or local providor don't exist anymore. But when they did exist, we chose instead to go to the supermarkets because they were cheaper, easier and they offered greater variety. That was the trick. Cheap easy variety. So we got hooked by the benefits and were distracted from seeing the long-term consequences that are staring us in the face today.
No use kicking ourselves though, we didn't know any better, and neither did those who were busy building their food empires. These people aren't bad. Actually they're really good. In some ways they're a bit too good at their jobs and have just gotten a bit too big for their boots.
So now that we are becoming aware of the problems caused by oversized food empires, the question begging to be answered is ‘How can we bring things back into balance?’
However, before we get too focused ‘how to’ of rebalancing our food systems, let's take a moment to imagine what a healthy and sustainable food system might look like.
In my opinion a healthy food system would be decentralised as opposed to centralised. As much food as possible would be sourced within local areas and from community dwelling business owners. It would make sense for as many nearby local regions to be running on similar decentralised systems so that they could trade easily with each other for items that are not available in their own back yards. A healthy food system ought to have at the core of its raison d'être, the responsibility to provide sufficient nourishment for all members of our society. It would need to be financially viable as a commercial operation, however the system itself would not exist to pay dividends to shareholders. It would instead reinvest profits for the purpose of nourishing more people.
Now before you throw me in the Marxist camp, be assured that I am not at all referring to a top down imposition of socialist ideals nor am I talking about regulatory policies on the trade of food. I am referring instead to a customer level response and a mechanism which gives us the choice to support a more responsible approach to food systems. It is also important that a food system does not exclude privately owned 'profit generating' enterprises. More than ever we need entrepreneurs to come out of the mist to start-up profit making food businesses that can feed into the new system.
Now let’s take a look at the nature and anatomy of food systems.
Firstly, a food system is not the individual parts that comprise it, but the overarching mechanism that constitutes the majority of food being traded within a society. Historically this overarching mechanism was the nebulous 'free market system' which existed between the thousands of relatively similar sized food enterprises. Today however, the free market system has been dominated and controlled by the oligopoly and the majority of food is traded within an exclusive and vertically integrated big boys club. Therefore the free market system no longer provides a domain for small and medium operators to flourish in abundance.
Drilling deeper into the mechanics of the food system we can see that there are five basic layers. Growers, producers, distributors, retailers and customers. Of these five layers, the oligopoly exists across the first four layers, with retail being the linchpin. Supermarkets determine which products are made available to customers to buy which is critical to ensuring market dominance.
An ongoing process of mergers and acquisitions means that fewer and fewer people are now in charge of more and more of the market. On the back of these gigantic retail operations, the larger growers and producers went about the same game of merging with and acquiring each other, to form advantageous economies of scale, and consequently improved supply relations with the retailers.
As a result, in a period of less than 30 years, the era old array of hundreds of thousands of smaller operators has coalesced into behemoth corporations that operate under completely different agendas. For example, rather than focussing on growing or producing food that contends in the market, based on what the customers want or need, these companies use their inordinate budgets to scientifically manufacture psychological demand for products that are not physiologically desired. In fact, the products pumped out are designed more for the purpose of low cost and large scale production than for providing nourishment.
At this juncture we may wish to revert back to the good old days of many thousands of smaller operators, but that is much easier said than done. It's not simply a matter of pressing the rewind button.
Having said that, I do feel that decentralising our food systems and re-establishing a diverse array of smaller localised operations is achievable via a new phenomenon recently coined by Rachel Botsman as ‘collaborative consumersim’.
Collaborative consumerism is a term mainly used to refer to the trend of consumers taking turns with goods between themselves, such as a lawnmower, rather than each individual buying and owning an item of their own. The exciting part is that this term can extend to goods that we can’t take turns with, for example, food. In this case collaborative consumerism would refer more to a united group of customers who use their collective buying power to support businesses that fulfill their common purchasing criteria. In the case of our food systems then, the criteria could be to support local products and businesses.
Now the good news is that the fifth layer of our food system, customers, are by far the most powerful layer... if they are united. If the customers are divided, as they are in our present system, then the next most powerful layer is the one which is most unified - retail.
So, you see, we do have the power to make the change happen, if we could just unite and get organised.