Foxes in Charge of the Henhouse: The Influence of Big Agribusiness on Food Policy

Understanding the relationship between money, politics and food can cause a loss of appetite

There was a time when very few people questioned the source of the food on their plates: how it got there, how the animal that provided that meat was killed and how it was treated until its demise, as well as the effects of pesticides, antibiotics and carbon emissions created by food production. But even though consumer awareness about where our food comes from may be stronger than ever, the sustained influence of big agribusiness continues to threaten public health, animal welfare, food safety and the environment.


In the United States, for example, big agribusiness has been trying to get so-called "ag gag" bills passed to criminalize animal welfare whistleblowers, several of whom in recent years have revealed shocking photo and video evidence of the worst kinds of animal abuse on factory farms. Thankfully, these anti-transparency bills failed in Florida, Iowa and Minnesota last year. But there is a larger issue. As New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman notes, "The problem is the system that enables cruelty and a lack not just of law enforcement but actual laws."

And the root of the problem is that the ones who are supposed to be writing such laws are being bought by big agribusiness. According to "Growing Influence: The Political Power of Agribusiness and the Fouling of America's Waterways" -- a report issued by Environment America in February 2011, just days after the US House of Representatives voted to limit the ability of the EPA to protect the nation's waterways from pollution -- big agribusiness contributed more than USD 120 million to political candidates, ballot measures and party committees over the past decade. And between 2005 and 2010, the 10 leading big ag interests spent USD 127 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies.


But the issue is a global one, and while there are a few international multilateral organizations that are supposed to be looking out for the global food supply and how its production impacts the environment, according to a new report, the policies of at least two of these bodies -- the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) -- are increasingly being influenced by big agribusiness.

Released earlier this month by the Canadian civil service organzation ETC Group, which has consultative status with the FAO, the report, "The Greed Revolution: Mega Foundations, Agribusiness Muscle in on Public Goods," warns of "the growing influence of agribusiness on the multilateral food system and the lack of transparency in research funding," describing case studies that reveals a worrying level of policy involvement by Nestle, Heineken, Monsanto, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Syngenta Foundation.


The report details one story in which several big ag interests -- including the trade organization CropLife International, which represents pesticide companies, and the International Fertilizer Industry Association -- complained to the Deputy Director-General for Knowledge at the FAO about the Paris draft of the UN's zero draft document for the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development in June. As a result, according to ETC Group, "many follow-up civil society contributions were actively suppressed" and the "forwarded text reflected industry's concerns and made no apparent effort to address other written submissions from civil society."

"It is unacceptable that the UN is giving multinational agribusiness privileged access to alter their agricultural policies," said Pat Mooney, ETC Group's executive director. "It is ridiculous that the key organizations responsible for agricultural research have no credible data on the extent of corporate involvement in their work...Governments and UN secretariats have forgotten that their first task is to serve the public -- not the profiteers."


Esther Vivas of the Centre for Studies on Social Movements (CEMS) at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and author of the book En Pie Contra la Deuda Externa (Stand Up Against External Debt), about the international movement against foreign debt, describes the disconnect that has developed from society's hegemonic approach to human sustenance. "Today, the food system no longer responds to the nutritional needs of people, nor to sustainable production based on respect for the environment, but is based on a model rooted in a capitalist logic of seeking the maximum profit, optimization of costs and exploitation of the labour force in each of its productive sectors," she writes in International Viewpoint. "Common goods such as water, seeds, land, which for centuries have belonged to communities, have been privatized, robbed from the people and converted into exchange currency at the mercy of the highest bidder."

It is apparent that politically influential multinational corporations exercise an undue control on global food production. The Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP), a public outreach and consumer advocacy non-profit, notes that "orporations that own factory farms often control the entire process of production -- from raising the animals to slaughtering, processing, and distributing the final products... as a result of their tremendous political power, industrial food producers are able to prevent the creation and enforcement of regulations capable of protecting human health and the environment from the damages caused by factory farms."

Though the relationships between big agribusiness, governments and NGOs is a complex web, a big part of the solution is rather simple, and it has to do with where consumers and investors choose to put their money. Through socially responsible investing and ethical consumption, the money flows away from the problem. Without investors or customers, big ag won't be so big. Now doesn't that locally-grown organic tomato taste good?


Humane Society of the United States. "'Ag Gag' Bills Die in Iowa, Minnesota, Florida." June 30, 2011.
Bittman, Mark. "Who Protects the Animals?" New York Times. April 26, 2011.
Environment America. "Agribusiness Lobby Fights Against Clean Water." February 24, 2011.
ETC Group. "New Report: The Greed Revolution. Mega Foundations, Agribusiness Muscle in on Public Goods." January 17, 2012.
Vivas, Esther. "Causes, consequences and alternatives." International Viewpoint. December 14, 2009.
Socially Responsible Agricultural Project. "Agribusiness & Concentration of Production." June 22, 2009.

image: Harvesting grain in Sonoma County, California (credit: Jeffrey G. Katz, Wikimedia Commons)