Corporate concentration and the consumer

Choice in the Cereal Aisle?

by Alicia Harvie

Choice in the Cereal Aisle?

Lauren Carelli

Riddle me this: how can a food system that offers so much variety be constricting our choice as consumers? The answer? Concentration of power. If there’s one idea to remember, one phrase that sums up the woes of our food system, this is it.

Yet it’s easy to see why the concentration of power in the food world goes unnoticed by even the most conscious consumer. Walking into a supermarket, we’re bombarded with thousands of brand names and products vying for our attention. As shoppers, our dilemma feels more like “How could I ever choose?” rather than, “What happened to my right to choose?” It’s confounding.

But those thousands of products are something of an illusion. Here’s why:

Stroll down your cereal aisle and you’ll see every flavor known to humankind: from loops of fruit to clusters of oats, from peanut to chocolate to strawberry to Franken Berry, your breakfast choices are thrillingly limitless. Right?

Not so fast. Behind that cornucopia lie just a few corporations who own all the brands you see. They make almost all the decisions about our food and how it’s grown. They even dictate the prices farmers receive for their goods and what we pay at the checkout.

In fact, the guise of choice hides a dangerous reality: Never before in history have just a handful of companies controlled every step of our food system.

One of the most paradoxical aspects of the many “options” in our grocery store is that they really boil down to a few raw materials: corn and soy.

Whether as high fructose corn syrup or soy lecithin, as major components of animal feed, and even in your favorite bottle of beer, corn and soy are ubiquitous in our food supply. One reason is because they’re incredibly cheap, offering a great bargain for industrial livestock operations, soft drink moguls, and snack makers, who use corn and soy as inputs for mass-produced meats and processed foods. The relative cheapness of these foods helps manufacturers set prices below those of otherwise-competitive, healthier alternatives, further constraining our choice.

What’s more, the supply of these raw goods falls under the control of just a few companies. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 85% of all corn and 91% of all soy grown in the country comes from genetically engineered (GE) seed under the control of one company, Monsanto.

This presents a complete lack of choice for farmers. For consumers, we have few alternatives to foods with GE ingredients and no labels to guide us.

Concentration of power also leaves more of our dollars in the hands of corporations, with just pennies left for farmers. Over the past few decades, the farm’s share of a dollar spent at the checkout has plummeted. In bad years, this share can be so low that droves of farmers leave the land.

In fact, we are rapidly losing farms from our national landscape. We see this happening today in the dairy sector, where prices paid to farmers have taken a dive. Yet retail milk prices haven’t budged. 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—sometimes so little that they go out of business. This, of course, only places more power into the hands of few, and further erodes our choice.

It’s high time for a change. Farmers produce food that is meant to nourish our bodies. They are stewards of our land and carry a cultural heritage cherished in America. We deserve markets that reflect the complex set of needs fulfilled by farmers. Farmers deserve markets that give them a fair shake.