Wenonah Hauter wants to start a debate. The lifelong activist and executive director of Food & Water Watch, a watchdog agency and nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., wrote the book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America to get the conversation going.
In Foodopoly, Hauter casts a deep and bold look into how the history of politics and agriculture have created today's industrial food system. Hauter makes a well-researched case (naming names and all) pinning the consolidation of the food industry as one of the farthest-reaching ails of our dysfunctional economy. She asserts that the largest 20 food companies exert the most control over food and farming, and in the retail sector, four retail chains (Walmart being the biggest offender) control 70 to 90 percent of the market, which has monopolized our food system and concentrated wealth in the worst possible way.
Last week, Hauter visited Charlotte to promote her book. We caught up with her to talk about what democracy has to do with marriage, why we need solidarity in Charlotte and her ceaseless drive to advocate for democracy since becoming an activist in the 1960s.
Creative Loafing: What motivated you to write Foodopoly?
Wenonah Hauter: I've always had a lot of sympathy for farmers. A lot of blame is placed on farmers when it is really food companies and economic interests that benefit from food policy. Farmers are not the drivers of food policy. They are complete victims to the system. They are marketed to by the biotech industry just like consumers are with sugar, fat and salt.
Your book clearly describes a systemic problem within the government and spells out the idea that voting with our fork and supporting localized food communities (like Charlotte) is not enough. How do we, as conscious consumers, not lose hope or get swallowed by the enormity of this issue?
Any of the big battles that we have had, civil rights for example, takes decades. It takes organizing and having that long-term vision and realization that it's a continual struggle to improve the world and living conditions and you're never fully there. There is always the new battle for the next generation. I think a lot of our opponents or economic interests who don't believe in democracy want people to be cynical, give up and feel powerless. It's our job to say having a democracy is kind of like having a good marriage — you have to put some energy into it and so let's start putting some energy into it.
What can we do?
It's really about so much more than food; it's about whether we're going to have a democracy. The goal is to encourage people to get involved and for them to see that we have to develop political power. Building political power is really about getting individuals to work on elections, to connect the issues they care about to elections and then hold the people they elect accountable. People think that once someone is elected, that their work is done and it's really just beginning. The Obama administration is a perfect example of that.
What issues should raise the eyebrows of North Carolinians?
North Carolina could do a lot to impact the entire food system by taking an interest in how animals are processed within the state. There are more than 10 million hogs being raised on factory farms in North Carolina, producing 40 million gallons of untreated manure in open air lagoons that pose hazardous health risks. We need solidarity in Charlotte. The vote is here because much of the leadership is here.
What do you want people to know about the consolidation of our food system?
Many people don't realize that the industry has had a chilling effect on the economy from livestock growers to food and vegetables. It's the elephant in the room and it affects the entire economy. That's why we don't have jobs. If we want to have a food system that's diversified and supports a fair market, then we are going to have to address these larger structural changes.
Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America
By Wenonah Hauter
(New Press, 368 pages, $26.95)