Once again, I’ve been sipping from the firehose of the internet so you don’t have to.
Here’s what I found.
More and more of the global food supply is controlled by fewer and fewer companies. Market concentration brings with it some efficiencies, but for whom, exactly? Certainly not for the people who grow food and probably not even for the people who eat food, given the impact of overconsumption of financially cheap food. I’m grateful to Marion Nestle for drawing attention to a new report for the Family Farm Action Alliance on The Food System: Concentration and Its Impacts.
One measure of concentration is known as CR4; the combined share of a sector owned by the top four companies. There are problems with the measure. For example, it includes only a “horizontal” sector such as “beef processing” and increasingly food companies are becoming more vertically integrated too. Cargill, for instance, has roughly 42% of soybean processing (CR4–80%) and 36% of beef processing (CR4–73%) in the US. A lot of the beef that Cargill processes eats Cargill-processed soybeans, but it is hard to measure concentration in that way. Nevertheless, Marion Nestle says that “anything over about 50% is considered to be highly concentrated”.
It is also difficult to compile global measures of CR4, one reason that the new report focuses on US markets. Even so, it does offer some global measures.
Some names in that figure may not be familiar, yet. Corteva is an agricultural spinoff from the merger of Dow and DuPont. Bayer bought Monsanto and spun off some of Monsanto’s seeds to BASF. And ChemChina bought Syngenta. As the report notes, all four of the globally dominant agrochemical companies are also dominant in global seed sales, with BASF in fifth place, just outside the CR4.
The full report goes into the ramifications of high, and growing, concentration.
One of the report’s authors is Phil Howard of Michigan State University; he’s been on the show a couple of times, talking about industry concentration and its impact on food safety.
Of course it is a pure coincidence that Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4 talked about tea just two days after my own episode, and covered at least some of the same ground. Sarah Besky’s contribution was fascinating, and there was one aspect in particular that I wish Laurie Taylor had pursued.
Apparently, one of the many problems facing Indian tea plantations (problems that are important for the awful effect they have on plantation workers) is that increasingly, tea in India is also being grown by smallholder farmers outside the plantation system. The problem is that they are able to undercut the plantations on price. At least, that was my understanding of what Sarah Besky said. That’s exactly how tea was grown in China before the development of the plantations in Assam, by individual farmers. And, as Erika Rappaport told me, that was a valuable weapon for the promoters of Indian tea, who were able to paint Chinese tea as unclean because it was processed by sweaty, dirty foreigners.
Why, then, don’t the plantations use a similar argument to turn us against non-plantation tea? Probably, as Sarah Besky (and Laurie Taylor’s sainted father) pointed out, because none of us has the faintest idea what’s in a teabag, or even in a packet of ordinary branded tea. Up to 20 different sources of tea in a single teabag, I think she said. Big tea brands have no interest in where the tea comes from or how it is produced. Consistency at a (low) price is their goal. Tea brokers, as Sarah Besky explained, are fully part of that process as they set the price for each batch they sample.
Could the tea drinkers of the world (or just the Brits) do anything to improve conditions for tea producers? I suppose I’ll have to ask Sarah Besky myself.
The only good thing I can see about the UK’s departure from the EU is the slim possibility that it will result in a more rational food and farming policy. A new Agriculture Act is in force, prompting The Economist to ask Can farming be greener after the common agricultural policy?. Like all headlines that pose a direct question, the answer is probably “No,” and not just for my nit-picky pedantry that insists a more sustainable policy would see less synthetic fertiliser on pastures and so less neon-green fields. (More nit-pickery: it can be greener, but will it? Again, no.)
The punditry is still more or less undecided on the future of the UK’s food and farming system, but not so my old friend Colin Tudge:
> All the new measures that the government is introducing or plans to introduce acknowledge that “business as usual” is no longer an option (it never was, but we’ll let that pass) – but the nettle, nonetheless, is never grasped. It is still taken more or less for granted that agriculture, like everything else, must not only be profitable (generate more money than is invested) but must make a profit even within the present economic structure – which means in competition with all other enterprises within the global market. Any other course is deemed to be “unrealistic”.
That’s part of a gentle rant about the failure of government to govern for the whole population. When will we see grown-up thinking on land, food, resilience and sustainability?
Small Things Considered is a passion-powered website driven by a desire “to share our appreciation for the width and depth of the microbial activities on this planet”. Often, the posts blow right past me, but when they involved fermentation, they bathe my brain in growth medium. Hard to believe, then, that they really had written nothing before about yoghurt.
> Which microbes make yogurt? What’s yogurt’s history? Whence its popularity? Where to start from among the many yogurt stories that can be told? In the beginning …
Roberto Kolter fills the gap with a short history of yoghurt
Take care, and stay safe.
Photo of Lactobacillus bulgaricus by polaristest on flickr