Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of the watchdog group Food & Water Watch, based in Washington, D.C. Her book, Foodopoly, examines the history and political machine behind agribusiness consolidation, the pharmaceutical industry, factory farming, food safety—even the co-opting of the term "organic"—which have contributed to the demise of small farms.
We spoke by phone about what we, the consumers, can do to fix our broken food system.
INDY Week: How can rural and urban people, who are often politically at odds, unite in advocating for a fairer food system?
Hauter: It's one of the reasons I wrote Foodopoly. Too many urban people, including environmentalists, have demonized farmers, for their use of chemicals for example, in advocating for good food. People in rural areas are as much the victims. The community is really devastated because they can't make a fair living. We need to talk about the issues we have in common.
I was surprised to learn that beginning in the 1940s, there was a concerted effort to deter people from farming. This started the decline of small farms while allowing the rise of agribusiness. How do we reverse that?
In the farm bill, we need to think about what kind of food system and country we want. That involves trade and offshoring our food production. We need to re-examine these economic policies that allow multinational corporations to produce food where it's cheapest. Yet it's not allowing people to have a safe food system or to make a living.
What is the greatest threat to organic farming?
Fourteen of the 20 largest food processors view organics as a niche market to make a premium. But they have no real interest in organic standards. They've lobbied to weaken them. It's just a label to them so they can make a higher profit. Watch what happens at the Organic Standards Board. We just had a victory there. They wanted to use antibiotics in organic food, but because of the outcry, they won't in the future. We need that kind of vigilance.
California Proposition 37, which would have mandated labeling of GMO foods, failed. Why? What does that portend for the rest of the nation?
The [industry] bit off more than they could chew in getting that $45 million to do ads to defeat it. They have really angered people and now there are 30 states with campaigns to label GMOs. I think we are going to see, eventually, state bills passed. It inspired a huge grassroots movement.
Characterize the Obama administration's food safety and policy record.
I'm not pleased. I think their latest move to allow the poultry industry to slaughter 175 birds per minute [which inhibits adequate inspection of the carcasses] and to be more reliant on chlorine washes is absolutely outrageous. The Obama administration has approved more GE crops than any other, including George Bush. There's been a lot of happy talk about Michelle Obama and childhood obesity and organic gardens at the White House, but as for meaningful policy, there's been none.
The problem is so vast that it feels overwhelming. You mention several potential solutions in the book. Where should consumers start?
It's important for people to work to influence their elected rep on the farm bill, even if we don't make all the progress we want to. It's going to be a long road, and we have to work very hard to organize and to have patience to achieve what we'd like to.
Foodopoly is a call to action. We have to vote and hold people accountable. People who are excited about food issues should get involved in politics. Fixing our food system means fixing our democracy.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bite the hand that feeds."