Targeting the social and economic ills created by globalization and corporatization has been a mainstay of social activism and critiques of global capitalism for over two decades. The consolidation of corporate control in the food system is no exception. Howard’s book, Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat? applies a critical political economy lens to the phenomenon of concentration of ownership and decision-making within the food system. Primarily focused on the dynamics between business interests, labour and the state in the American context, the book seeks to unpack how US-based firms become dominant within segments of various food value chains. Building upon this foundation, the book explores how control over decision-making and organization of food value chains shapes and reshapes society in order to further consolidate ownership in the food system. Using value chain analysis, Howard focuses on several specific commodities (pork, soybeans, milk, leafy greens) to demonstrate how oligopolies emerge in some sub-sectors, but also explores why similar concentrations of power do not materialize in others. The book includes analyses of both ‘quantitative changes in the market, and qualitative changes in society’ as part of the same process of accumulation of power and control over decision-making in the food system.
The book consists of nine chapters. Sandwiched between the introduction and conclusion, the remaining seven chapters are focused on a particular segment of the value chain with the exception of Chapter Seven, which is focused on the entire organic food value chain in the US. Each chapter examines a key strategy that select firms use to ‘restructure society’, overcome social or political restraints on concentration, and then subsequently increase their control. Quantitative data is displayed in reader-friendly infographics in the form of maps, figures and tables. The use of accessible language and clearly written explanations makes this book appropriate for wide range of readers outside of academia. All chapters contain text boxes detailing how a specific corporation contributed to the concentration of power in a particular sector. Each chapter ends with describing forms of resistance to accumulation and concentration, examining how public pressure and protest are society’s tools used to challenge and in some cases, dismantle some efforts to consolidate. Howard gives the example of some organic farmers rejecting the USDA organic certification process that they claim has watered down aspects of organic agriculture’s long-standing commitment to environmental sustainability. Harmonized organic standards are argued to favour large-scale production and corporate interest in capitalizing on premium-price organic foods. In response, some organic farmers choose to farm organically, waive certification, and utilize alternative market channels such as localized value chains.
This book has many strengths. Chapter One provides clear and concise definitions of concepts and terminology used throughout the book. The interdisciplinary approach gives the book enough breadth to include all of the pertinent factors, such as labour, that are affected by concentration and power consolidation in the food system. Overall, this book is well organized and the flow of arguments and supporting evidence is logical and easy to follow. Along with Chapter One, Chapter Four stands out as the strongest in the book, focusing on ‘Engineering Consumption’ and how consolidation within the food system affects consumer behaviour. I can see how applying the concept of ‘deskilling’ to consumers may translate quite well into other areas of research focused on socioeconomic negatives of capital accumulation and globalization, such as the rising tide of precarious labour and the decline of traditional employment relationships (e.g., full-time/permanent jobs). I also think the idea of ‘capturing mindspace’ is equally thought provoking, and could have utility in other discussions related to changes in the food system. For example, discussions regarding public fears over food safety, food labelling and nutrition claims, and debates around the uses of biotechnology in food production.
Despite the multitude of strengths, there are a few places in the book that may have benefited from more robust discussions. For example, the cases of resistance to corporate consolidation and concentration of power in the US food system might have been beefed up, most notably in Chapter Two, where food trucks are championed as forms of resistance to consolidation in the food retail (grocery, convenience and fast food outlets) sector. The evidence supporting this example as a form of organized resistance is a bit thin. The author does not include enough empirical evidence of the impact food trucks are having on corporate consolidation in the food retail sector. Including some quantitative data may have been helpful to support this example. It would also have been useful, though the book is primarily focused on the US, to include some examples of organized resistance to corporate control of the food system happening elsewhere in the world, such as in neighbouring North American countries (Canada, Mexico) as well as South America and Africa. Chapter Seven, though rigorously researched and well organized, seems somewhat out of place in this book, as it is focused on corporatization throughout the entire organic food value chain unlike the other chapters that examine a particular segment of the conventional value chain. Ideally, Chapter Seven might have been broken down into two or three chapters since the same conditions of capitalist accumulation can also be found in each segment of organic food value chains across North America.
Overall, this book achieves the goals it sets out for itself. The accessibility of the language, paired with rigorous analysis and sturdy methodology make Concentration and Power in the Food System a must-read for those who seek a better understanding of how corporations consolidate power in the food system.
Lisa F. Clark holds a PhD in political science and is a Research Associate with the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan. She is currently examining the political and socioeconomic dimensions of innovative ready-to-use foods. Her research interests include food security, food quality standards and labelling, food safety regulations, and technology and innovation in the food system. Lisa’s work has appeared in Food Policy, Science and Public Policy, Social Philosophy Today and most recently, Food Law & Policy. Her new book, The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America is available in hardback and e-book from Edward Elgar Publishing.
Jennifer Clapp and Doris Fuchs, Corporate Power in Global Agrifood Governance, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009); Catherine Eschel and Bice Maiguashca, Making Feminist Sense of the Global Justice Movement, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011); David Held and Andrew McGrew, Globalization/Anti-Globalization: Beyond the Great Divide, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007).
A value chain is defined as a ‘range of activities required to bring a product or service from conception, through the different phases of production. This involves a combination of physical transformation and the input of various producer services, delivery to final consumers, and final disposal after use.’ See Raphael Kaplinsky and Mike Morris, A Handbook for Value Chain Research, (IRDC, 2001). Accessed October 04, 2016, http://www.ids.ac.uk/ids/global/pdfs/VchNov01.pdf
Lisa F. Clark détient un doctorat en science politique et est une analyste à l’Université de la Saskatchewan au sein du département d’agroéconomie. Elle examine les dimensions politiques et sociopolitiques d’aliments prêts-à-manger novateurs. Ses intérêts de recherche portent sur la sécurité alimentaire, la qualité des aliments et de l’étiquetage alimentaire, la réglementation, la technologie et l’innovation dans le système alimentaire. Ses travaux ont été publiés dans les revues Food, Policy, Science and Public Policy, Social Philosophy Today, et Food Law and Policy. Son nouvel ouvrage, The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America, est disponible auprès de la maison d’édition Edward Elgar Publishing (format papier et électronique).