Tyson and other meat companies advertise their mission is to feed “our nation and the world.” It’s a lofty goal that convinced President Donald Trump they should stay open in the spring, even as workers were beset by the coronavirus. But a new report argues that America’s consolidated, super-efficient food system has wasted a staggering amount of meat during the pandemic — and exacerbated the hunger of millions.
“This consolidated food system is not doing what it needs to do, which is feed people,” said rural sociologist Mary Hendrickson, lead author of “The Food System: Concentration and Its Impacts,” which published Nov. 19, on a press call. The interruptions caused by the pandemic showed that “the system is really fragile, and we have to think of ways that it can become more resilient.”
The report was commissioned by the Family Farm Action Alliance (FFAA), a research arm of the political action group. Its leader, Joe Maxwell, has long argued that food monopolies harm American farmers and consumers alike, and backs stronger antitrust laws, like the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration rules (GIPSA).
Farmers destroyed tons of food
The authors estimated that pandemic-induced closures of meat plants operated by Smithfield, JBS, and Tyson, among others, caused farmers to destroy no less than 29,000 tons of edible pork and millions of pounds of chicken meat—at the same time that 29 million Americans reported they did not have enough to eat.
The report’s top-line findings — that for decades, global food companies have grown at the expense of small ones, and that concentration and vertical integration continues to squeeze Americans farmers — should surprise no one who follows food and agriculture issues. What’s new, though, is the finding that during the pandemic, when Americans have been hungrier than ever, that concentration has caused significant waste.
“This consolidated food system is not doing what it needs to do, which is feed people.”
Between 1987 and 2017, farms between 100 and 1,000 acres have receded from the American landscape, falling from 57% of cropland to under 34%. Ninety million acres have transferred from the hands of midsized farmers to the country’s largest operations. Over the same time period, as the number of dairy and pig farms have shrunk, the remaining operations have grown in size.
The remaining farmers have fewer people to sell to. The world’s largest pork companies, like Smithfield, JBS and Tyson, own the processors and grain elevators that buy the animals and their feed. Supermarkets like Walmart, Costco and Kroger own facilities that process milk and chickens.
The system’s defenders say that consolidation benefits American consumersbecause efficiencies increase productivity, and drive down prices. Hendrickson and her three co-authors argue that’s not always true, citing the rise of meat prices for consumers, despite the ongoing consolidation and concentration.
It’s a similar story for beer, said Philip Howard, a Michigan State University professor who studies consolidation, and co-authored the paper, noting that InBev raised prices after merging with Anheuser-Busch, and then SAB Miller.
“They promise lower prices for people, but then they become more economically and politically powerful, and actually raise prices.”
“It’s kind of fascinating that the rationale used for these is often the opposite or the polar opposite of what happens,” Howard said. “They promise lower prices for people, but then they become more economically and politically powerful, and actually raise prices.”
Consolidated systems vulnerable
The pandemic has revealed that those consolidated systems are also more vulnerable. As an example, the paper offered the April closure of the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota — which was alone responsible for 5% of the country’s pork slaughter — due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus among workers.
When a plant of that size shutters, pig farmers struggle to find new buyers for their animals, and are sometimes forced to euthanize their herds — a tremendous loss of life and natural resources, and undoubtedly an emotional trauma for farmers.
Those supply chain backups, in turn, result in a massive volume of wasted food, which in theory could be feeding hungry Americans. Between April and June, anywhere from 300,000 to 800,000 pigs were euthanized, or between 29,000 and 77,000 tons of lost pork, the authors estimated. The poultry industry, which is similarly concentrated, also “depopulated” at least 2 million broiler chickens by May.
It’s not just pork and chicken. The study’s authors argued that over 3 million bushels of corn that fed those euthanized swine were a form of waste, too — because that fertile cropland could be growing other crops that people eat, not animals. Although less striking than images of large-scale vegetable farms dumping produce, to them, it’s another such instance of a highly concentrated industry failing to put food in people’s mouths.
Despite the waste, the country is not in danger of running out of food. During the pandemic, farmers remained productive, and companies made record exports of pork and other meats to China. Food diverted to charities is at the highest point in two decades, added Alison Cohen, a program director at WhyHunger. She says that access to food is a function of money, not processing capacity.
‘People cannot afford to buy food’
“To say that, by wasting food, we’re missing the opportunity to feed hungry people — that could be a distraction from what the real root cause of hunger is, which is that people cannot afford to buy food,” Cohen said. “We have enough food. That’s not the issue.”
Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who credits Maxwell with his interest in the plight of farmers and ranchers, said the pandemic added urgency to his ongoing quest to end industry consolidation.
When “our processing plants closed, workers got sick and died, and farmers were all forced to kill healthy animals and plow over crops in the fields, while millions of Americans were in need of food, while we saw them in often miles-long food lines, in the wealthiest nation in the world,” Booker said on the call. “I believe the main reason that’s driving this broken system is corporate consolidation.”
Whether Booker will be able to move meaningful antitrust legislation in a divided Senate remains to be seen. The Farm System Reform Act, which he introduced in January to strengthen GIPSA, stalled. A previous bill that would have put a moratorium on food and agriculture mergers, which he introduced in 2018 and again in 2019, also did not advance in the Senate.
Nevertheless, Angela Huffman, a spokesperson for FFAA, said the group will issue policy recommendations for Booker and other members of Congress in January, one week after members are sworn in. The recommendations will “certainly include” strengthening GIPSA, and other actions to break up food monopolies, she said.
* Sam Bloch is a staff writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications.
* The Counter is a nonprofit, independent, nonpartisan newsroom investigating the forces shaping how and what America eats.
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