Bad farm policy and unchecked corporate mergers have driven out independent family farmers, creating powerful agribusiness giants with massive market share. And after decades of government officials looking the other way, regulators are finally acknowledging that there might be a problem. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) held public workshops around the country to hear about the state of competition in agriculture markets.
What they heard wasn’t good. Today, a tiny cabal of agribusinesses and food manufacturers has a stranglehold on every link of the food chain. These powerful interests can use their market dominance to control how food is produced, the prices that consumers pay and the prices that farmers receive. Access to locally grown, organic, sustainable, equitable food is hindered by a marketplace that is controlled top to bottom by a few firms and rewards scale over quality, sustainability or health. As a result of this concentration, consumers are paying more for their food, farmers are receiving less and those companies in the middle are soaking up the profits.
The presence of thousands of products on supermarket shelves hides the fact that a few companies own most grocery stores and produce most staple foods. The four largest companies in each industry slaughter nearly all the beef, process two-thirds of the pork, sell half the groceries and manufacture about half the milk in the United States. Only two firms sell two-thirds of the corn and soybean seeds. These national measurements can conceal much higher levels of concentration at the regional or local level, where one company may have a virtual lock on an industry. The top four supermarket chains control half of the national market, but on the local level the top four chains can control more than 70 percent of the marketplace. These meatpackers, food processors and supermarkets contend that their size offers consumers more choice and affordability. In reality, these companies rarely pass their lower costs on to consumers through lower retail prices.