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Transcript for

Phil Howard on Corporate Consolidation


Matthew 0:00

Hi everyone, Matthew here. Quick programming note before starting today’s episode. We’re going to be  launching our first survey. We are not collecting your private and personal data so we can sell you ads about what to eat next. Instead, we’re doing this for the benefit of you, our listeners. We hope to learn more about what you like so we can make content that is more suited to your interests. You can find the link on our website or in the episode show notes. Thanks and now onto the episode.

Matthew 0:29

Welcome back to Feed, a food systems podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Matthew Kessler

Samara 0:34

And I’m Samara Brock. And in this season we explore power in the food system - Who holds power currently? Does this need to change? And how do different people exert power to shape of food systems that we all depend upon.

Matthew 0:46

When we shared that we’re exploring power in food systems, many people told us that you’ve got to look at the corporate consolidation in agribusiness and “you’ve got to talk to Phil Howard!”

Phil Howard 0:57

Corporations are not out there, creating a production and consumption system that they happen to profit from, they're actually sabotaging society to increase their power. And they're undermining our self-reliance and doing all these types of things that result in a food system much less equitable, much less resilient than it would be in a different type of political economic system.

Matthew 1:23

While this won’t be our only episode on corporations, and it certainly won’t be the only way we’re looking at power, we thought that our conversation with Phil Howard was a great way to kick off this series.

Samara 1:33

You may recognize Phil Howard’s visualizations where he maps the history of different food sector mergers and consolidation. He has produced these maps on the global seed sector, on the beer industry, and recently on investments in cellular meat to name a few.

Matthew 1:47

Phil Howard is a professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Community Sustainability, a member of IPES-Food, the International Panel of Experts on sustainable food systems, and the author of Concentration and Power in the Food system that investigates the question - who controls what we eat?
Samara 2:03
We talk with him about the rise of concentration in organic food, how power is distributed within corporations, how farmers prospects of staying small and diversified have diminished over time, and we’ll dive right into the big question, whether a sustainable food system is compatible with capitalism?

Matthew 2:23
We’ll soon talk about Phil’s understanding of how power operates in food systems. But before that, Samara kicks us off with a more fundamental question.

Samara  2:30

There's a lot of different ways that folks understand power. How do you think about it?

Phil  2:35

Yeah, I think power is really complex. But a way to talk about it succinctly is the capacity to create foreseen effects on others. And, you know, that can have a lot of dimensions, which can be difficult to uncover, or it can be visible, invisible, hidden.

Matthew  2:53

So you have a book titled Power and Concentration in the Food system. So this is clearly a subject that you've been thinking of for quite a long time. But I was wondering if you could share a story of when you first started to understand how power operates in the food system.

Phil  3:07

Yeah, I didn't really study the food system until I was a PhD student at the University of Missouri. And I there, I worked with a professor named Bill Heffernan. And he's been studying these issues since the 1960s, starting with the changes that were occurring in poultry in the US, and I got to tag along with him, when he was talking to farmers in northern Missouri about these issues. And what was really striking is he would pull out a tow chain, a big tow chain, and talk about how the top link represented farmers, the bottom link represented everyone who eats, but in between all these other links, he would talk about these different stages, the food system that were often hidden, things like grain collection, grain processing, animal feed, meat processing, distribution, retail. And he described how few firms controlled every link in that chain, and he would name the names of the firms. And one striking statistic in the US is that just four firms control over 80% of beef processing.

Matthew 4:15

These four firms are Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef— who actually purchase and process over 85% of beef in the US. There was a recent NY Times Daily podcast on this topic that also pointed that in the 1970s, these four packers controlled 25% of the market.

Phil 4:34

So as someone who didn't grow up on a farm, even though all my grandparents grew up on farms and moved away, food just showed up at the grocery store for me. So to hear what was happening behind the scenes, how concentrated it was becoming – it really, really had a big impact, which is why I continue to study it.

Samara  4:56

And from the research you've been doing for years on this, what is your perspective on who currently holds power in the food system?

Phil  5:04

Yeah, there's still some of these distinct links in the chain. But some of those are disappearing as well because of what's called vertical integration. So those chicken processors, for example, they're buying upstream suppliers of inputs like chicken feed, they're buying downstream distributors. So firms like Tyson are becoming much bigger, much more powerful. And if you look at the percentage of food sold in the US about a third comes from just 10 firms. So the number of firms that control our food system is just getting smaller and smaller.

Samara 5:40

And why is that an issue?

Phil 5:42

Yeah, there are a lot of issues with this. One is it's simply it's resulting in fewer and fewer people making decisions about the food we eat, how food is produced, how it gets to us, and ultimately even who gets to eat. So that's a problem, you know, just on the face of it. It's an ethical issue for people who believe in democracy and are not supportive of elitism - that's an issue. But we also see a lot of other problems with this, as these firms want to become even bigger and more powerful. The intended impacts of their strategies are increasing inequality. So they're getting more powerful at the expense of everyone else.

Matthew 6:19

It goes without saying that not everyone agrees with this diagnosis. We’ll speak with guests later in the season that will offer other perspectives

Phil 6:26

There're also a lot of - in some ways - unintended consequences, the ecological impacts of the strategies they're using to become bigger, things like excessive nutrient pollution, reducing diversity in the food system, increasing the likelihood of epidemics of livestock disease and diseases that affect crops and so on.

Samara  6:48

And what would you say to someone who would argue that having sort of these efficiencies of scales are actually a positive thing because they enable consumers to have access to food at a cheaper price, which is ultimately good for functioning democracies and economies?

Phil  7:04

Well, that's actually false on a couple of levels. These firms are not really more efficient, even when you're defining efficiency from their perspective themselves. More and more studies are finding that as firms get bigger, there are not efficiency gains, there is simply more power. And that power is being used not to keep food cheap, but to actually increase prices. So we've had cases where firms have been using data sharing firms to fix prices, manipulate supplies to keep prices higher, to drive down payments to their suppliers and workers. There are other cases where firms have been bribing legislators in some countries to facilitate their growth.

Matthew  7:47

You mentioned earlier that four firms make up 80% of beef processing. Can you talk about some other examples of concentration across the agri-food sector? And also share a little bit about how it has changed over time?

Phil  8:01

Yeah, in almost every sector you look at it's the trend has been towards fewer and larger firms. And that's within national markets and now increasingly, internationally. And that's one of the things that's been really striking is particularly for inputs that farmers buy, globally, those industries have transformed dramatically in recent decades. So you have just three firms that control over half a pesticide sales.

Samara 8:31

So those three firms are Sygenta, headquartered in Switzerland and German-based Bayer and BASF. And if you add CortevaAgriscience and FMC, both in the United States, these 5 companies make up for approximately 70 percent of the world market share of pesticide sales.

Phil 8:49

And those same three firms control almost half of name brand seed sales. And there are similar trends in farm machinery and fertilizer. Other industries like beer, just one firm, Anheuser Busch InBev, was allowed to acquire the second largest firm in the world, SAB Miller, at a price of over $100 billion. And as a result, just one firm brews about a quarter of the beer for the entire world, which is really amazing when you consider 100 years ago, beer was just an extremely local product. It's something that almost anyone could make. A lot of people make beer at home. It's heavy, it's expensive to ship. But we now have a society that has facilitated an opportunity for one firm headquartered in Belgium to just dominate the entire world.

Samara  9:39

So you work on visualizations of power. And we're wondering why have you chosen to represent what you do in a visual way? And do you find that it helps to illustrate power dynamics in a way that, say, just written text about concentration does not?

Phil  9:55

Yeah, when I was tagging along with Bill Heffernan, he would distribute some very simple diagrams of the relationships between these firms representing some very complicated relationships in terms of the increasing vertical integration and horizontal integration, the acquiring of direct competitors. And I was really struck by the impact this had on people in the audience, I mean, they would basically gather in small groups and pore over these diagrams and talk about, you know, what was happening with firms that they were familiar with, but maybe not didn't quite know, the extent of their activities. And so what I later learned was that, you know, vision is our most powerful of our five senses. And, you know, to use a computer analogy, it's like, just a massive, it just has massive processing power. And our brains can recognize cues like color, form, and spatial position in less than a quarter second, which is less time than it takes to pay conscious attention. So when you encode data with those cues, and visualize phenomenon through information, graphics, it really reduces the cognitive burden. It takes, you know, it's able to communicate much more than a large table full of text could communicate, where things don't stand out, pop out in the same way. So people can very quickly kind of get a sense of what's being communicated. And it reaches much wider audiences than a very text heavy document, for example.

Samara  11:22

And have you had situations where people have said that they understand power dynamics differently because of a visualization you've produced?

Phil  11:30

Yeah. What's been most fascinating to me is how many times I hear from people within these industries because they see headlines every few weeks, this, this ownership changed, that ownership change. But until they look at a visual of just who is doing what all on the same page, they didn't really understand the scope of the changes within their own industries, even though they were with something that they were keeping track of on a daily basis.

Matthew 11:59

And we’ll link to some of the visuals that Phil has produced so you can have a sense of the impact of these images. This is also how I first learned of Phil’s work nearly a decade ago. I saw a visual of consolidation in the seed sector and wanted to learn who was behind these maps. So I asked Phil if he remembered the first visual that he created.

Phil  12:17

Ah, yeah, I think the first one was I looked at organic processing firms and the changes that occurred after the National Organic standard went into effect in the US. And just how quickly some of the largest food processors in the world moved in and started buying up firms. It also showed the catalyzing impact of venture capitalists because venture capitalist firms would buy multiple pioneering organic brands within the same category like say all bread firms, and then they would take that bundle of firms and then sell them off to bigger food processing corporations. And that was a visual that I think, probably resonated more than it would have because this was a trend that upset a lot of people. People who were supporting organic because they thought they were supporting an alternative and then to find out what was hidden behind the scenes. Not on the product label is that they were actually owned by big companies like General Mills.

Matthew  13:14

That's really interesting. And also to think that these tools are potentially used more by venture capitalists.

Samara  13:21

Yeah. Have you been approached by venture capitalists?

Phil  13:23

Yeah, I hear from investors, venture capitalists, startups all the time. Because I think they think I have a much deeper understanding of these industry than I actually do. They think I know how to start up a firm so that it can be acquired by a big corporation. I've heard from people who said, we looked at that organic chart, and we want to be on that chart someday, we want our firm to be acquired by some of these big multinationals.

Samara  13:54

Yeah. I mean, that leads into our next question. So you said that the size of our stomach is limited. So food companies have to be increasingly innovative to stay competitive? It's interesting that you're saying people want to find themselves on that chart where they're being bought up by bigger companies, because that is actually an aspiration of many startups. Do you think that sort of growth paradigm is an inherent sort of internal mechanism of how capitalism functions? Or is it just the way that it's expressing itself right now?

Phil  14:26

Yeah, I think this is a really important point is that capitalists don't seek maximum profits, what they want to do is beat the average. So they want to grow more than other dominant firms. And you know, in the food industry, that can be challenging at times, because people can only eat so much food. So there, they have to find other strategies to increase sales. But, you know, the flip side of that is in periods where growth is stagnating, these capitalists are content to actually decline less than average, because in relative terms, that means they're still increasing their power. So I think it's important to think about that strategically, in terms of corporations are not out there, creating a production and consumption system that they happen to profit from. They're actually sabotaging society, to increase their power. And they're undermining our self reliance and doing all these types of things that, you know, result in a food system that's much less inequitable, much less equitable, much less resilient than it would be in a different type of political and economic system. So you know, when people have a limited stomach, these firms are using strategies like employing corporate anthropologists to really deeply study groups of people like young college students. And designing products like a ready to eat sandwich that can be held with one hand, so the other hand can be used for texting, and using very cheap ingredients that are heavily subsidized, not healthy, but marketed in a way that convinces people to pay a premium for that product. And so, those types of strategies have been really successful in many parts of the world.

Samara  16:08

And what would you say to corporations who in the food system who are like we're just producing what the consumer wants, like, we're, we're not, you know, we're only increasing our market share, because we are actually have a good product that is fulfilling society's needs.

Phil  16:22

Yeah, they're producing things that that some consumers want, but they're also reshaping consumer behavior to want those products. An example is Pepsi Cola due to a lot of increasing conversations about the unhealthiness of many of the products they sell, the CEO made a push to start bringing in more more, you know, healthier products to their product line. And she was just penalized. This firm was penalized next in its stock price as a result, because the underlying assumption is, these are not products that are going to allow the firm to grow faster than other firms. And so the firms that stay committed to the less healthy products they're going to have. They're going to grow faster than Pepsi. And so it sends a message to the entire food industry that this was not a viable strategy for increasing power. In some ways, these executives are stuck in the system, they don't have a choice. They try to do what consumers actually want. And they're going to they're going to get penalized by Wall Street.

Matthew  17:22

I’d like to follow up with that. You see this phenomena recently, where big companies are starting to diversify their portfolio into perhaps more healthy products. Or you see companies that have traditionally produced animal products have become or transitioned or rebranded themselves into these protein industries, as you've read about? And I wonder, what do you think the main motivation behind that is?

Phil  17:47

Yeah, I mean, people are very good at rationalizing what they do, even when they're kind of constrained to a narrow pathway. So if you have a firm that's creating alternatives to meat products, you know, you can take an evangelical approach to say you're saving the world. And, but if you're a publicly traded firm, you're really going to be pushing the same model of highly processed foods, foods with a high profit margin, using very cheap ingredients, you're going to be pushing this cultural model of something that goes on the center of the plate, rather than a more diverse and healthy diet. So this is happening in what's increasingly called protein industries. They're focusing on this one macronutrient, to the exclusion of others, and using it as an umbrella to, you know, as a growth strategy. So, you know, growth in meat is very constrained. In certain countries like, Europe, US, pork and beef consumption is not increasing. So, growth opportunities can be found in industries that were previously outside of meat processing, such as aquaculture, these vegetarian meat alternatives. And, these firms are just taking advantage of trends, buying startups that have done all the hard work of creating new markets, and they’re positioned to grow whatever catches on with consumers.

Matthew  19:14

You've also written about the meat industries developing these alternative products in different parts of the world in the Global South. What do you think are some of the implications of this?

Phil  19:25

Yeah, I mean, the firm's have really pushed foods that weren't culturally prevalent, because they have a high profit margin. So you see rapidly increasing consumption of dairy products in China, for example, increasing sales of meat products in other parts of the world. And this, you know, one one label for this is the meatification of diets, even though it involves other animal foods like dairy. And it's, it can be even more subtle than that. And China, marketing, you know, by firms like Tyson, they're steering preferences away from pork, and towards chicken, which is cheaper to produce and more profitable for Tyson. Other firms are steering consumers away from the diverse types of pork that were previously there and towards the industrial breeds of pork, which they are promoting as leaner. So, there's been this dramatic reshaping of diets, which is not to say it's not resisted, and people are always resisting the efforts by these firms, but they're very good at using government policies and their influence over retailers to make it harder and harder to resist those trends.

Matthew  20:35

So we talked a little earlier about some of the corporate strategies to increase in size, but the implications of that, from the farmers and consumer’s side a something that we're also very curious to explore with you. Maybe I can actually ask a question about from farmers’ side. Just to give a hypothetical, let's say I've had a mid-sized family farm for several generations, how is my choices of what to grow and what farm inputs are available? How has that changed in the last 50 years? What did my prospects look like in the past and what do they look like now?

Phil  21:09

Yeah, there's been a trend that makes it harder and harder to remain a small or medium scale diversified farm, the trend is to become bigger and more specialized. And, you know, unfortunately, the, just to make the same income, many farmers have to get bigger, use more and more inputs. So they're essentially just passing through money to seed companies, machine, machinery companies, fertilizer companies, banks that loan money to buy land. So it's in effect, they're on a treadmill. And that makes them very vulnerable to new technologies that may increase yields, they don't have the choice to resist those, if there are aspects of those technologies they don't like, they continually have to increase more and more just to have the same income. And then the choices are constantly being reduced as a result of these trends. So for example, in the seed industry, you know, Monsanto bought up two dozen Midwestern corn and soybean companies in the space of a few years, through a holding company called American seeds Incorporated, and then proceeded to, you know, introduce their genetically engineered patented traits into the seed that was adapted for these regions. And many farmers were not even aware of this change, because  the brand of seed remained the same, the name of the seed dealer stayed the same, there was no indication on the websites of these firms that they had been fully acquired by Monsanto. And then the number of seed varieties were reduced very quickly. So instead of offering over 30 seed varieties, they offered just a handful, and many of them were expensive varieties of seed that had stacks of different patented genetically engineered traits, it became even difficult to find seeds with just one genetically engineered trade, if that's all a farmer wanted, it became difficult to find seeds that were not genetically engineered.

Samara 23:08

A quick note here. We’ll be speaking to Dr. Channa Prakash, Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in episode 3 to hear a different diagnosis of genetic engineering and who holds power in the food system.

Phil 23:22

So this, you know, structure makes it very difficult for farmers to make the choices they may want to make for ethical reasons they have. You know, there are really incentives for them to do things that they don't even want to do like over apply nitrogen fertilizer, because they risk losing so much money, if they don't know, knowing the impacts on hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, they still feel like they have very few choices in this type of system.

Matthew  23:50

I think that is one interesting reflection that the farmers didn't even know that these changes were happening. That's a fairly strong demonstration of power when you can hide the breadcrumbs of your influence.

Phil  24:03

Yeah. And it's, it's the same for consumers. To take just one example beer a few years ago, I started decoding all the varieties of craft beer that were available my area who actually own them, because more than a dozen have been acquired by big firms like Anheuser Busch InBev, and Molson Coors. So I went to 20 different retailers and just measured the shelf space taken by different brands, and then who own those brands. And what I found was that nearly on average, nearly 40% of the shelf space in the craft, the craft section, had ownership ties to big brewers. And none of these were on the label. They were not apparent to consumers. So people who may think they're supporting an alternative to the big brewers, you know, at the other other end of the aisle, are actually, you know, supporting the continued takeover of craft brewing by these big firms. So, a positive thing is right about that time, the Brewers Association developed an independent craft label. This label is now used by 1000s of breweries in the US so that consumers can very quickly identify that it doesn't have those types of ownership ties.

Samara  25:16

And do you think that matters to consumers?

Phil  25:19

It depends on the consumer and often the product. You know, craft beer is something where some consumers are really upset about these trends when Anheuser Busch InBev acquired Wicked Weed, which specialized in sour beers, there was a really strong negative reaction. A  festival that Wicked Weed had sponsored every year. It fell apart as a result of that. I think there's also frustration that, you know, Anheuser Busch InBev, has actually run commercials during Super Bowls that mock craft beer drinkers, the exact same time they're buying up these craft breweries. So it shows that the commitment to those craft values is not really there.

Samara  26:07

I wanted to pick up on something you said before about the example you brought up about the Pepsi executive who actually wanted to change things. Often when we are talking about corporations, especially sort of in alternative food, arenas, corporations are seen as are depicted as sort of this unified thing that has these objectives. But I'm curious to know, stemming from that Pepsi example, who has the power in these corporations, if you had to pinpoint the power actors who is driving these objectives that corporations have?

Phil  26:45

Yeah, I mean, it's, there's a tension between the CEO, the Board of Directors, the shareholders, they all have a say, in the direction of a firm. So ultimately, firms tend to react to other firms and imitate, imitate their strategies. So there are some degrees of freedom, like a firm like Costco, you know, big big food retailer, they can treat their employees well. And they can, they will constantly be penalized by Wall Street for not following the Walmart approach by just treating employees poorly, paying them poorly. But they have some some advantages as a result of treating their employees well, that have compensated for Wall Street penalizing those values. So you see shareholders, they were the ones that penalize Pepsi, drove down the share price after introducing that strategy. You know, had that strategy been more successful if society was at a point where there was more of a backlash against fast food and a willingness to buy Pepsi's versions of healthy products. And the sales numbers reflected that then there would have been, you know, the shareholders would have driven up the price. So the thing about capitalism is, it's so flexible. You know, it's very adept at taking resistance capitalism and co-opting it. So you have, you know, organic food is a good example, you have all these organic brands that are now part of these huge multinational food processors. So the shareholders have limited power, in some ways. When you look at shareholder resolutions that are trying to convince firms to, you know, offer products with less meat and things like that. They're not having a lot of traction right now. But as soon as those meat alternatives become more successful, they will have more traction.

Samara  28:35

So looking at organics and other alternatives, that are created to create sort of a different food system, but seem to follow this trajectory of just being bought up and incorporated into existing food, food systems. Is there a better way to go about creating alternatives?

Phil  28:53

I mean, it's really difficult. I mean, it's easy to say in hindsight, what organic people in the organic movement should have done because I don't think they anticipated how successful they were going to be. It took a long time to get to that point where they were 1% of food sales. And then the co-optation occurred very quickly. But I think one thing that everyone should keep in mind when building alternatives is to envision success and to build in barriers to capitalism. For example, a uniform national standard just facilitated these bigger firms to enter the industry, the previous system, which was just kind of negatively portrayed as a patchwork of different regulations, that also kind of created a barrier to the largest firms and kept it more local and regional in scope. So thinking about ways to just deliberately keep out big firms. And, you know, there are some of the last remaining independent organic firms of significant size, have built in some of these barriers, such as, they're worker owned there’re stipulations that if they are sold, the worker owners, this example is equal exchange, they will not receive the proceeds, the proceeds will go to another Fair Trade Organization. So this removes the incentive to be bought out. And those incentives are huge when, some of the biggest multinationals, food processors in the world are putting enormous figures in front of you. And if you turn that down, you now have to compete with firms like that, and their massive resources and their government subsidies and so on. So it's very difficult to stay independent in that type of situation.

Matthew  30:06

That brings to mind questions of scaling and the ability of a more decentralized power to scale. Is it not still a success that organics has moved from near 0% of food sales to 1% to - is it around 5% now?

Phil  30:53

Yeah, it's a little over 5% In the US, the number is higher in other countries.

Matthew  30:56

So it's moved from 1% to 5%. Would it have been able to achieve that level if it weren't bought out by these larger corporations?

Phil  31:06

Yeah, that's a hard question to answer. You know, in the case of craft beer, it's about 20% of sales. Even though the number of firms that are defined as craft keeps going down there, there are always buyouts of some of the largest, most successful craft firms, Belle's here in Michigan, where I’m at, they recently sold to Kirin, a Japanese brewery. But you know, this is an industry where they were able to get to roughly 20% of sales with, you know, 7000 plus independent breweries. So organic, it's hard to say if the level of sales would have been the same with or without the entry of big firms. And there are definitely advantages. You can point to some successes of now the biggest firms in the world are supporting at least a tiny percentage of their inputs are coming from farms that are not using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. So that's a positive thing. But a lot of the other ideals organic have been lost as part of that.

Matthew  32:06

So we’ve been speaking a lot about diagnosing corporate consolidation and some of its impacts. We turn now to Phil’s aspirations for future food system and what his ideal food future look like?

Phil  32:17

Yeah, I think an ideal food future would be far less concentrated, it would be much more democratic. It would give voice to all the actors in the food system, you know, the people who eat food, the workers, you know, decisions will be made democratically on what needs to be produced and how it's produced. And, you know, everyone should have access to affordable and nutritious, culturally appropriate food. It should be a lot more sustainable in terms of less reliant on fossil fuels, more diverse, you know, far less monoculture, far less dependent on global networks of trade. And, you know, we've seen recently the problems when you have food that is, you know, could potentially be blocked by these choke points, whether it's, you know, a plant to get shut down from COVID or a ship blocking the Suez Canal. This system is becoming really fragile. So that's an area where as flexible as capitalism is, they will stay on paths until they are forced to get off them. So you've seen, we have just a few firms that control animal genetics for the entire world. And one of them, which was headquartered in Europe, centralize their breeding operations, and then experienced avian influenza. So that disruption, it hasn't changed the ownership structure, which is still very concentrated. But they're now decentralizing their breeding operations on other continents, so that they can be more resilient. So I think the challenge is being very aware of capitalism, and its strategies to respond to these crises in a way that steers them in less democratic directions, and to instead organize and respond to  move them in a more democratic direction.

Matthew  34:07

And what specific aspects of power are getting in the way of this ideal food future? And maybe a bigger question: is this ideal future possible under the umbrella of capitalism? Or is that something that these two concepts just can’t mingle and live with each other at the same time?

Phil  34:25

I think the challenge is capitalism is a very complex concept. So I don't think a future with markets is a problem. But a future with this dynamic of people who want to become more and more powerful relative to others, that  ultimately - it can't succeed, it will create some kind of crisis in terms of social resistance. And if you have, you know, Jeff Bezos, owning the entire world, and everybody working for him, it probably won't get to that point, even though that that would be his goal. So I think a challenge is recognizing, very clearly the role of governments in facilitating these trends and not expecting that a well designed policy can actually turn this around, because in the current system, those policies are going to be undermined, co-opted, and actually just turned to the advantages of the big firms very quickly. So we have to gain back control of governments. So that these decisions are not made top down, and we can't expect. We can't expect the governments, you know, which are intertwined in this political economic system of capitalism to actually respond to what people want and less, there's tremendous pressure.

Samara  35:25

So clearly, some people have too much power, and some people don't have enough. Can you sort of outline who it is that has too much power? Who doesn't have enough and how we might go about shifting those dynamics?

Phil  35:57

Yeah, I mean, you have a very small number of billionaires in the world who have increased their wealth very rapidly in the last two years during the COVID crisis. They have far too much power. And I think a lot of people are recognizing that. And then there are people who don't have enough to eat, don't have adequate shelter. Those are people who really lacked power. Then there are people who are in between, that are best positioned to change the system, the top 10% of every population. They're in positions where they would have to give up some power, but ultimately, they would be better off in moving to a system that is better for everyone.

Samara  36:41

So if you were king of the food system, or I guess the democratically elected representative of the food system, what is one change you would make that you think would enable the kind of changes you would like to see,

Phil  36:55

Yeah, I wouldn't want to be in that position because. But I would want to convince other people that one strategy that we need to focusing on is removing the subsidies to the big corporations. Some of them are direct, but many of them are hidden. And without those subsidies, these firms will be far less powerful.

Matthew  37:17

And perhaps last question. Is there anything you're undecided about? And thinking about how power operates something that's still kind of you're puzzling about and not sure which direction it should go?

Phil  37:28

Well, I think there's so much that's hidden. And there's, there's, you know, the we have these rare cases where work comes to light, for example, JBS admitted to bribing 1000s of politicians in Brazil, to facilitate government loans to acquire, you know, big meat processors and US, Europe, Australia. I mean, there was so it would have been so easy for that not to come to light to not know, what happens behind the scenes and how power operates. And, you know, we know that the boundaries between big firms and, you know, top politicians are not as distinct as we think, you know, there's a revolving door between private business and industry and very similar worldviews. But there's so much of those dynamics that that isn't well known. So I think, you know, it's very challenging for researchers and journalists and citizens to study these things. But I think more and more of these are coming to light. People are, you know, releasing documents, like the Panama Papers and exposing more and more of how power operates behind the scenes.

Matthew  38:35

Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Phil  38:37

Yeah, thanks for having me.

Samara  38:38

Yeah, that was super interesting. Thank you.

Samara 38:43

Thanks everyone for listening! That wraps up another episode of Feed a food systems podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please let us know by rating and reviewing on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.

Matthew 38:54

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Samara 39:04

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Matthew 39:18

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Samara 39:26

TABLE is a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University.

Matthew 39:33

This episode was edited by Matthew Kessler with valuable feedback from the extended TABLE community.

Samara 39:39

Join us in two weeks as we speak with Julie Guthman, a food geographer currently researching Silicon Valley’s power to shape the future of the food system.

Julie Guthman 39:48

And it's a very different vision than organic farming, a lot of it is like rather than work with natural processes, is trying to do away with natural processes, like bringing things indoors or making cows out of cells and bioreactors. And so obviously, it depends on what we mean by sustainability. Because clearly, they have a different idea of sustainability.