Photo: Original by heatkernal via Flickr

When you smile, the food world smiles with you … maybe.
Photo: Original by heatkernel

For more than a generation, the major corporations that process and sell the vast bulk of our food have had it pretty easy.

They’ve had access to cheap energy to ship food over globe-spanning distances and run giant food-processing plants; reveled in cheap inputs like corn and soy, transforming them into everything from breakfast cereal to chicken nuggets; and relied on low-paid, abundant, and politically disenfranchised workers to do the dirty jobs. Together, these elements formed a kind of tripod propping up the industry’s enormous profits even as food’s retail price barely budged.

These companies fattened themselves on what economists call “monopsony” — monopoly’s shy but cunning cousin. When a few companies dominate a market and collude to jack up prices for their customers, they boldly risk incurring punishment by antitrust authorities. But when they quietly perform the opposite dirty trick on their suppliers and workers — use their market power to force down prices and wages — federal authorities tend to look the other way, as Barry C. Lynn showed in an important 2006 Harper’s essay.

Now the food industry’s holy trinity of cheapness is threatening to collapse. The price of diesel fuel — which keeps those food-stuffed refrigerated 18-wheelers thundering down the highway — has more than tripled since 2002. Corn and soy continue to trade at rates unimaginable just three years ago. As for labor costs, overall wages remain stagnant, but the anti-immigrant crackdown is forcing the food industry to struggle to fill the least desirable jobs on the mega-farms and meatpacking plants on which it relies. As a result of all these factors, the industry is scrambling to shift its rising cost burden onto the very consumers it’s conditioned to expect dirt-cheap food.

In other words, we’re watching a massive industry muddle through a once-in-a-generation crisis — one that presents opportunities as well as threats to those who’d like to make the food system more just and sustainable.

Wal-Mart Goes “Local”

No company leveraged the cheap fuel/input/labor tripod to reach greater heights than Wal-Mart. The retail giant stocked its first grocery shelves at a Missouri “supercenter” less than 20 years ago. Today, Wal-Mart takes in 21 cents of every food dollar spent in the United States, Paul Roberts reports in his new book The End of Food — far more than any other supermarket chain.

Wal-Mart rose to dominate the food-retail landscape through a ruthless and constant focus on undercutting its competitors. Using its vast supply network, the company scoured the globe for the best deals on everything from produce to processed food, hauling the goods hither and yon in its armada of 18-wheel rigs. The effect on its suppliers has been stark. U.S. processed-food giant General Mills now sells nearly a quarter of its output through Wal-Mart. Largely dependent on the whims of one big customer, General Mills has little leverage to pass on higher costs to consumers. So what does it do to maintain profitability? It becomes a mini-Wal-Mart itself, squeezing its own suppliers to cut costs (by dumping U.S. farmers in favor of cheaper stuff from China, for example). And it scales up in an attempt to make up on volume what it’s losing on profit margin.

According to Roberts, the severe price pressure applied by Wal-Mart and competitors like Costco and Safeway led to the consolidation boom that has swept through food processing over the past decade. “Today, in the categories of breakfast cereals, snacks, and beer, three-quarters or more of all products are generated by the top four companies,” he writes.

If huge corporations like General Mills struggled to reinvent themselves to survive Wal-Mart’s transformation of food retail, farmers have had an even tougher time. As Wal-Mart and its few competitors globalized food sourcing, they drew in a flood of cheap imported produce — and severely undercut large-scale U.S. produce growers. The most stark example involves garlic. Between 2003 and 2007, imports of Chinese garlic tripled and the wholesale price of garlic plunged, forcing California’s once-thriving garlic growers to cut production by 30 percent, NPR reports. In population-dense regions like California, such setbacks often mean not a switch to new crops, but to new land uses altogether. After the garlic shakeout, much productive farmland now sprouts condos and strip malls.

Now, with diesel prices swinging upward, news comes that Wal-Mart is rethinking its hyper-global food-retail strategy. Over the past two years, the company revealed in a recent press release, it has been aggressively seeking out nearby farms to supply its regional distribution centers. “[P]artnerships with local farmers have grown by 50 percent over the past two years,” the press release boasts.” Then it adds triumphantly: “Wal-Mart [has become] the nation’s largest purchaser of local produce.”

Now, there will and should be plenty of debate about precisely how Wal-Mart defines “local”; evidently, the retail behemoth considers food grown and consumed within the same state to qualify. That definition might shine in smallish states like, say, Vermont. In large states like Texas and California, it begins to lose luster. The word “regional” probably makes more sense to describe Wal-Mart’s new produce-sourcing strategy.

But we do need a revival of regional food distribution. As I’ve written before, we’re not going to have a truly sustainable and just food system until we find a model that works for mid-sized farms — the very ones that have been under severe economic pressure from globalization for decades. The real question is, will Wal-Mart provide that model, or will it revert to its traditional bare-fisted, bully-the-supplier tactics? If the former, Wal-Mart could make its first contribution to supporting a food system that works for more people than just its shareholders. If the latter, the company’s new rhetoric about “supporting local economies” will prove a bitter farce.

Hog Hell

While Wal-Mart responds to changing conditions by experimenting with more regionalized business models, the few companies that dominate our meat production are looking longingly across oceans.

Pork giant Smithfield and all-around meat titan Tyson have both seen their share prices drop nearly 40 percent over the past year as spiraling prices of corn and soy — the primary feed for pigs, chickens, and cattle — eat into profits. The companies haven’t had much success passing on higher costs to U.S. consumers, because overall demand for meat in a developed economy like the U.S. grows slowly.

That’s why these companies are increasingly hanging their hopes on emerging economies in Asia, where demand for meat is growing steadily as income rises. Last year, Smithfield and Tyson both inked deals to export millions of pounds of pork to China — a fraction of their output, but the start of what they hope will be a beautiful relationship.

And just last week, Smithfield cemented its ties with China by selling 5 percent of its shares to the state-owned company COFCO Group, China’s largest food importer and exporter and a budding pork producer. As part of the deal, Smithfield will lend COFCO its industrial hog-production expertise.

Forbes reports that COFCO now slaughters a half a million hogs annually, “under contract with small producers.” In partnership with Smithfield, COFCO hopes to boost production to between 10 million and 15 million hogs within three to five years. Here the kicker: they’ll be “raised in accordance with standards and practices prevailing in the United States.” I hope populations surrounding these farms know what they’re getting into. Rather than die the inglorious death it deserves, our meat industry is managing to replicate itself halfway around the earth.

With the ground shifting under the food industry’s feet, we’re likely to see more shuffling and flailing as these mega-companies grope for new business models. Many of them, like Wal-Mart, will wrap themselves in green as they try to identify new profit opportunities. Sustainable-food advocates shouldn’t dismiss these efforts reflexively — nor should we mindlessly cheer. Amid a brewing global food crisis that could revive sustainable agriculture or stamp it out, the need to carefully scrutinize what the giants are up to has never been greater.

Likewise, the need to support and broaden access to farmers markets and CSAs and other direct farmer-consumer links only grows. After all, with Wal-Mart barreling into the local-food market, small and mid-sized farms will need all the buyers they can find — to defend themselves against the corporation’s expected attempts to play hardball on price.