The Illusion of Food Freedom: Corporate Control of Our Agricultural Systems

The Illusion of Food Freedom: Corporate Control of Our Agricultural Systems

  • Heather Decker

Who controls our food system? Many theories—even some conspiracies—exist about powerful people dictating what we put on our tables. But the true face of food-system control is a lot more familiar than you may think. 

The three largest meatpacking firms, JBS of Brazil, Tyson Foods of the United States, and WH Group of China, control a whopping 63% of pork packing, 46% of beef packing, and 38% of poultry. These companies own dozens of brand names all over the world, from Pilgrim’s Pride and Smithfield to Jimmy Dean and more. By controlling 40% or more of sales, they have become an oligarchy, or a shared monopoly. 

Beyond horizontal industry control through acquisition of competitors, these companies have also consolidated vertically, taking over feed suppliers and genetics firms and controlling packaging and branded-food manufacturing. From seed to shelf, our food system has been mastered.

In July, Americans celebrate their independence. We reflect on the freedoms we often take for granted. One such freedom is our ability to choose what we eat. But in today’s food system, where big conglomerates control production of most food on our shelves, true freedom of choice is becoming an illusion. 

Different logos and food brands make consumers feel like they have a choice, but in reality, a majority of American dollars go to the same few megacorporations. 

Corporate Control on the Farm

Corporate control on farms leaves farmers with little to no control of their own operations. Stocking density, feed, etc. are all determined by the companies.

When it comes to farming, the wool is being pulled over consumers’ eyes. Increasing farm consolidation and corporate control are pushing small-scale farmers off their land and out of business. 

“We own the farm, we own the land, we own the chicken house. We don’t own the chickens. So they bring us chickens to take care of, and they pay us for babysitting.”

Tom Lim, Transfarmation Farmer and Former Contract Poultry Grower

These corporations have tightened their grip on every aspect of our food chain. This control strips farmers of their independence. Many farmers in contract relationships claim they feel like “serfs on the land.” Companies dictate which crops are grown, how animals are raised, and even the prices we pay at the grocery store.

“The meat industry is the closest we have to a criminal organization in modern day American business and the USDA just seems incompetent to deal with them. It’s allowing them to keep engaging in these incredibly abusive practices to both our workers and farmers.”

—Austin Frerick, Agriculture Policy Expert and Author of the Book Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry

Farmers are at the mercy of large corporations, making them more vulnerable and less autonomous than ever before. Contracts can be canceled at any time and don’t even guarantee enough animals for farms to be profitable. 

Corporate Control in Government

Corporations wield significant power over legislation and politicians through lobbying efforts and political donations.

With their deep pockets, corporations also wield significant influence over legislation and politicians. Extensive lobbying efforts and political donations to the tune of millions of dollars allow for significant sway. This makes it nearly impossible for small, independent farmers to survive, let alone keep up. 

Just last year, Big Meat groups and companies spent more than $10 million on lobbying and political contributions. For some, contributions were at an all-time high. Many have linked the increase to the Farm Bill, among other concerns. 

“These slaughterhouses are throwing record amounts of money at politicians right now because they see farmers and voters clamoring for change and they want to stop it.”

—Austin Frerick

President Biden has made corporate consolidation a target of his administration, particularly in the meat industry. Recent changes to the 103-year-old Packers and Stockyard Act are an example of this. These changes have inspired significant ire and lobbying efforts, however, along with political donations. 

Still, farmers and critics claim that these changes and protections for farmers are coming at too slow a pace. One independent pig farmer said, “[U.S. secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack is] doing a little bit here and there but my message to all them guys, including Vilsack, is: ‘Rome’s burning, guys, we’re disappearing.’” 

Price-Fixing: Consumers Pay the Price 

With less competition, the largest meat corporations have a clear pathway to artificial cost inflation, resulting in class-action lawsuits and a marketplace where both consumers and farmers are left with few choices and high prices.

Advances in modern technology have outpaced laws currently in place. Today’s data-sharing capabilities, for example, have enabled price-fixing collusion. Companies don’t even have to be in the same room to conspire. 

Agri Stats, an agricultural data and analysis company, provides a means for this. Big Meat companies—which should be competitors—use it to share data about their costs, output, and prices. Agri Stats standardizes all this proprietary data and distributes it to subscribing companies in a detailed report. Knowing every other company’s plans, prices, and pay enables these companies to restrict meat supply, inflate prices, and decrease producer wages. 

Agri Stats estimates that more than 90% of chicken, pork, and turkey producers are subscribers. Technically, such collaboration is illegal. Major companies have paid millions in price-fixing settlements, and just last year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) brought a civil case against Agri Stats for promoting anticompetitive practices through information exchange and violating the Sherman Antitrust Act.

“DOJ’s lawsuit shows that Tyson, Sanderson, Cargill, and JBS have all raised their prices because of Agri Stats. In a recent article, Open Markets Institute highlighted that during the alleged conspiracy, turkey processing margins increased 300% in just three years, Tyson Foods saw its operating margin grow from 1.6% in 2009 to nearly 12% by 2016, and wholesale pork prices rose over 50% in five years after nearly a decade of relative price stability. That money is coming right out of consumers’ pockets.

—Jessica Cusworth, Angela Huffman, Dee Laninga, Christian Lovell, and Joe Maxwell for Farm Action

Our food system is rigged. It’s easier than ever for corporate giants to increase their profits at the expense of farmers, processing workers, and consumers. Though the DOJ is taking steps to eliminate this unfair practice, change will take time. 

Sowing Distrust in Plant-Based Foods

Big Meat corporations don't want consumers to trust in or purchase plant-based foods.

The world is grappling with climate change in real time. Mounting evidence shows a link between meat consumption and harmful emissions that is difficult to ignore. In response, a growing number of scientists, environmentalists, organizations, and politicians are working to shrink our food system’s massive carbon footprint. One solution is plant-based meat.

But Big Meat is challenging this solution. Industry-funded digital campaigns, employment of social media bots, and advertisements downplaying Big Meat’s environmental impacts are part of a movement to sway the public from decreasing consumption of animal products. 

One example is the #Yes2Meat campaign, coordinated by the UC Davis CLEAR Center, a communications outlet that feed-industry association IFEEDER funds. The campaign aimed to discredit a well-received scientific report about human diets and sustainability. Analysis of the #Yes2Meat countermovement revealed that it dominated online discussions about the report and sparked conspiracy theories. Responses to the report were 10 times more likely to be negative despite its legitimacy and the respect it initially earned.

Big Meat groups also fund their own research, which can be inherently biased. Companies have the power to choose the questions they wish to explore and withhold funding if the outcome is unfavorable. 

Industry groups would have us believe that plant-based meats are unhealthy, a false climate solution, and bad for farmers and food security. But all this effort is just to take our minds off the real problem in our food system—corporate control.

“Farmers’ ire has been misdirected at meat alternatives, which still make up less than 2% of the total market for meat and alternatives. The narrative that the rise of veganism and alternative protein sources is to blame for farmer job losses is becoming increasingly prevalent. The real killer of farming jobs is not falling demand for animal products, but intensification.

—Charlotte Flores, Political Researcher with Bryant Research

Corporate Control Is the Antithesis of Independence

In the land of the free, how are megacorporations allowed to continue this increasing consolidation? Their power grows as they push small farmers off their land and out of business, creating an ever-narrowing market dominated by a few large players. This not only impacts the variety and quality of food available to consumers but threatens the very fabric of our agricultural heritage.

As we celebrate Independence Day, let’s acknowledge the brave farmers, advocates, and organizations fighting to rebuild our food system. As consumers, let’s demand true freedom of choice. Let’s work together to ensure that the freedom we celebrate extends to every aspect of our lives, including the food we eat.