Big Food Under Fire

Industrial agriculture shouldn’t worry about the government. Mother Nature is a far more potent foe.

Read more from Slate’s Food issue.

The corporate behemoths collectively known as “Big Food”—companies like General Mills, Monsanto, Cargill, Tyson Foods, and Archer Daniels Midland—are feeling squeamish. They’ve watched with dismay as President Obama and his agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, have adopted “sustainability” as a top priority for the USDA and inched the department toward greater support of organic agriculture. With Kathleen Merrigan—noted sustainable agriculture advocate and former director of the USDA organic program—as the department’s new second in command; more money now available for organic farmers; and a grand USDA-funded study of organic agriculture and its role in American farming in the works, Big Food feels the ground shifting beneath it. So much so that it’s acting as if it could lose its grip on the American food system. But Big Food persists in battling the wrong target. While it is indeed locked in an existential struggle with an implacable foe, the government is not the enemy. The enemy is Mother Nature.

The simple fact is that the interests of Big Ag remain well-served by a broad range of government policies from agriculture, to trade, to the environment, to nutrition, and even to commodities market regulation. To suggest, as Nebraska’s Sen. Mike Johanns (a former Bush-era agriculture secretary) recently did, that the administration has “let [its] fervor for organic production cloud [its] judgment” vastly overplays the administration’s ambition. And when Obama did make a substantive attempt at reform, with his proposal to cut agricultural subsidies paid to the largest farmers, Big Food’s congressional allies moved quickly to kill it. Rep. Collin Peterson, the powerful chairman of the House agriculture committee and close friend of Big Ag, wasn’t kidding when he declared the proposal “more than dead on arrival.” No trace of the cuts made it into Congress’ final budget.

And that new funding for organic farmers? At $50 million, it’s no chump change. But it pales in comparison with the $11 billion conventional agriculture is estimated to receive in government payments this year—most of which, according to the Environmental Working Group, will go to the largest 10 percent of industrial farms. It’s clearly not the scale of the administration’s commitment to organic that’s at issue, however. Small gestures may also offend—which could explain why the pesticide industry has begun a letter-writing campaign protesting Michelle Obama’s much-ballyhooed organic “kitchen garden” at the White House.

Also overstated is the threat that food-borne illnesses could pose to Big Food’s bottom line. With E. coli contaminating not just hamburger meat but vegetables and with salmonella-tainted peanut butter causing the recall of thousands of products, Big Food is painfully aware that it must protect its centralized yet globalized supply chain. But, while large companies might complain about the potential costs of new regulation, their deep pockets will cushion any blow Congress might land in the form of restrictive new food safety laws.

In fact, it’s the small food processors and farmers who should be (and are) honestly panicking at the prospect of costly new regulations. The large companies, with their massive bank accounts, are well-positioned to adapt to any new regime. An industry that according to can afford to give more than $64 million in campaign contributions while spending another $139 million lobbying Congress last year alone can surely absorb whatever cost increases new regulations might entail. On the other hand, proposed mandatory participation in systems like the National Animal Identification System, which is designed to track disease outbreaks in livestock, could put many small producers out of business.

The one threat that Big Food hasn’t proven itself very adept at handling, however, is the multiheaded hydra of climate change, drought, and the shrinking supplies of various natural resources. The industry is not ignoring the political aspect of these threats. The farm lobby and its congressional allies were successful in excluding the agricultural sector from the climate bill currently before the House. Big Ag got exemptions for all its greenhouse gas emissions, which the EPA puts at 6 percent of total U.S. emissions (and which account for most of the country’s methane and nitrous oxide emissions, gases that have a far greater warming effect than carbon dioxide). And now, Rep. Collin Peterson, last seen ripping into the EPA for its recent ruling on how to measure the climate impact of corn ethanol, has threatened to derail the climate bill entirely unless he has the opportunity to rewrite it to Big Food’s liking.

But treating climate change as just another regulatory hurdle to overcome is misguided at best and irresponsible at worst. It certainly won’t help Big Food—entirely reliant on fossil fuel for its equipment, its fertilizers, its pesticides, and its processing facilities—in its need to function in a low-carbon world. Last year’s spike in oil prices quickly drove food prices higher, even contributing to food shortages in parts of the world. One can only imagine what $200-per-barrel oil—which may come sooner than you think—will do to Big Food’s business. And then there are the reports that the world is down to a few decades’ supply of phosphorus, a key ingredient in synthetic fertilizer. One of Big Food’s favorite refrains is the need for synthetics in order to feed the world. Yet it continues to lack long-term plans for providing adequate, affordable amounts of the stuff.

Big Food also insists that genetically modified crops will make up for whatever shortcomings industrial agriculture may face in the future. But despite decades of research, GM crop yield growth remains flat, and companies like Monsanto don’t deny that they are, at best, decades away from rectifying that. Meanwhile, persistent droughts in crucial agricultural regions like California—a state that grows almost half of the nation’s vegetables, fruits, and nuts—continue to vex large food producers. It may yet be that water—the most basic ingredient of all—will prove to be Big Food’s Achilles’ heel.

Typically, when Big Food is confronted with these developments, it dismisses the issue, the science behind the issue, or the person who raised it—and often all three. But continuing to dismiss a warming, resource-constrained world will ultimately prove a failure. Despite what the old margarine ad claimed, Big Food—though it often succeeds in fooling us—simply can’t fool Mother Nature.