The list of Global Food Forum attendees—over three hundred of them—reads like a Who’s Who of industrial food. Executives from Hormel, Pepsi, Newman’s Own, Bayer, Smithfield, Hershey, Materne North America (makers of squeezable baby food), Mars, Land O’Lakes, Anheuser-Busch, Tyson, McDonald’s, Syngenta, Dupont, Bunge, Bell & Evans, Amazon (owner of Whole Foods), Trader Joe’s, Campbell Soup, General Mills, Merck, Unilever and Starbucks joined officials from the USDA, various state departments of agriculture, banks, universities, several non-profit groups (for example, the Good Food Institute, which promotes plant-based diets and laboratory-produced “meat”) and professional associations like the National Soybean Association, the Corn Refiners Association, the National Pork Board and Dairy Farmers of America. . . along with me, like a fly on the wall in the lion’s den (to mix metaphors).
Let’s start with the food served there. The Networking Breakfast was a buffet featuring fried eggs served on English muffins (but no bacon or sausage), along with tons of breakfast pastries, bread and bagels, and fresh fruit. On the sideboard they had butter (!) and cream cheese (!) and of course coffee, and tea. A few guests took the fried eggs but most loaded their plates with pastries and fruit. I stood near the butter and watched carefully, but didn’t see anyone take any, so I knew I was with a group that believes its own propaganda.
For the sit-down lunch, we had salmon over pasta and vegetables with a dill cream sauce—quite good actually—plus salad with mozzarella cheese, but no bread or butter. In the middle of the table was a display of pastries and fruit. Two women at our table asked for a vegetarian meal, and they were the only two who took pastries (took several, in fact).
The first speaker was Anthony Pratt, Chairman of Pratt Industries, who noted that food production and processing is America’s biggest industry and source of jobs, employing twenty million people if you count retail. The future, he stated, is in value-added products, not bulk crops like grain, and America should focus on exports, particularly beef and dairy for the emerging middle classes in countries like China and India (who want nutritious foods like beef and cheese), as well as of value-added products based on fruit and nuts. He noted that since 2006, over four thousand new food and beverage products have entered the market—because of the pesky American consumer’s changing food habits. This was a recurring theme—how to predict and keep up with the public’s increased demands for different and healthier kinds of food.
Michele Buck, President and CEO of Hershey Company, was one of several food company CEOs who addressed the forum. Consumers are snacking more than ever, she stated, with only 50 percent of food eaten at traditional sit-down meals. But they want other kinds of snacks than candy—although candy sales are still strong—so Hershey has bought up companies like Amplify, which makes Skinny Pops (flavored popcorn in hip looking bags), Paqui seasoned chips, Oatmega (grass-fed whey protein bars and cookies) and Tyrell’s hand-cooked potato chips. (These products are advertised as free of gluten and GMOs, but all contain industrial vegetable oils, such as sunflower or canola oil.)
Carla Vernon, president of the natural and organic foods division of General Mills, noted that the company has been acquiring organic food brands since 2000, including Yoplait, Haagen Daz, Cascadian Farms, Annie’s and Muir Glen, the most recent being Epic brands, makers of pork rinds and meat bars (preserved by something called hurdle technology, of which more in a later blog). Ms. Vernon claimed that one-third of global greenhouse gases come from agriculture and floated the idea that organic food production had a negative effect on the environment.
Soren Schroder, the suave European CEO of Bunge Limited—a huge grain trading company with major stakes in the production of vegetable oils and sugar–argued for complete free trade without any tariffs or barriers as the only way a company like Bunge can make money. He called for more consolidation in the grain industry as a way to be “more efficient” and deal with the problem of “too much capacity” (so much for the claim that we need more food production). At the same time, he’d like to see a “rescue financial package” for grain products—(in other words, freedom from tariffs but aid from governments for failing grain farmers rather than higher prices from companies like Bunge).
Two representatives from the dairy industry addressed the forum. Beth Ford, President and CEO of Land O’Lakes announced that “Butter is back!” Consumers no longer believe that saturated fat is bad, she said. (There was an uncomfortable silence in the audience when she said this—remember this is a crowd that doesn’t eat butter.) The other was James Mulhern, President and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, who proclaimed that America produces the highest quality milk and has the healthiest cows of any country in the world. The future of dairy farming, said Mulhern, is in more technology and automation. He recounted how he advised a young farmer milking one hundred cows, who wondered how he could remain in dairy farming with prices so low, to install robotics in his milking parlor, so the cows could milk themselves! (That way, when the poor farmer goes out of business, he will be saddled with the millions of dollars in debt he incurred to purchase his robotics system and lose his land as well as his livelihood and cows.)
Both of these dairy representatives casually referred to the demise of dairy farms. Ford told the audience that forty-three dairy farms went out of business in Wisconsin in the month of August alone. Mulhern noted that the U.S. had three hundred thousand dairy farms in 1980, with an average of thirty-two cows, and only forty thousand today, with an average of over two hundred cows—a trend that will only continue. (They did not identify the elephant in the room—that the prices farmers get from the dairy monopoly are insultingly low, the same as the prices farmers received in World War II. This pogrom is silent and bloodless—except in cases where the farmer shoots himself—but is accomplishing the same goal of eliminating independent farmers as Stalin’s starvation campaign in Russia and the outright killing of farmers by Communist regimes in China and Ethiopia. . . that is, the consolidation of dairy farming into huge confinement facilities, fulfilling Karl Marx’s vision: the industrialization of agriculture with animals as units of production.) Mulhern announced that there will be no price supports for American dairy farmers because that smacks of Communism!
A key focus of the Global Food Forum was genetic engineering and the challenge of getting consumers to accept it. This was the message of Darci Vetter, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and Mr. Schroder of Bunge. Consumer mistrust and “lack of understanding” is a barrier to GMOs, and they admitted surprise at the strength of the non-GMO movement in the U.S. How can the American consumer be so opposed to Science? Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety from the European Commission confirmed great resistance to GMOs in Europe although he noted that GMO feed is used in all European meat products. “Everyone in Europe is his own scientist,” he declared.
Organic food is a big marketing ploy, said J Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Syngenta, a Swiss company now largely owned by the Chinese. Organic food is highly profitable, but the public doesn’t realize that pesticides are used in organic production. The audience seemed to agree with his assessment that organic food is a fraud (but of course the real problem with the organic label is that it means the consumer has a way to purchase foods that are not genetically engineered).
Syngenta has the solution with the new technology of gene editing, which is the “same as traditional breeding,” just faster and unlike genetic engineering, very precise. “We know exactly what happens to a plant,” said Fyrwald, “It merely involves modifying a protein and can be used for disease control, increasing yields, drought tolerance and extending shelf life.” (Actually, new gene editing technologies like CRISPR can introduce hundreds of unintended mutations into a genome, changes not predicted by computer algorithms.) The great thing about gene editing, says Fyrwald, is that the new seeds and plants have no foreign protein markers, so you can’t tell what’s gene edited by testing (the implication being that you can sneak gene edited foods into organics and the public won’t be able to find out).
Occasionally a questionnaire flashed on the screen and conference attendees answered with their cell phones. What do we need to feed almost ten billion people by 2050? The choices were gene-edited crops (chosen by 53 percent of the audience), tariff-free trade (26 percent), plant-based diets (19 percent) or farms on Mars (2 percent)—ha, ha, ha. (Our only choices on the questionnaire were the tired arguments claimed for feeding the hungry so vulture capital can make a huge profit on the human need to eat. The real solution is productive small farms, managed grazing [which increases the number of cows a piece of land can support by a factor of five] and local, artisan production, in short a food system that produces nourishing food, improves the environment and provides a decent living for millions of farmers and artisans. For the folks at the Global Food Forum, this is a solution from Mars, for sure!)
One more thing—and I found this very interesting. Two of the speakers, Soren Schroder of Bunge and James M. MacDonald, PhD, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stated that American farmers will be planting less soy and more corn in the coming years. They did not give a reason so I can only surmise. Is it because Brazil and Argentina can produce soy more cheaply and have no barriers to using GMOs and RoundUp? (In the U.S., Bayer faces billions of dollars in legal penalties for making people sick with glyphosate, the main ingredient in RoundUp—a fact not once mentioned at the Forum.) Is it because they have found out that soy fed to animals makes them less fertile and productive? Or have they realized that soy is killing off customers for processed food? Or maybe, just maybe, the demand for foods containing soybean oil and soy protein is waning due to the efforts of the Weston A. Price Foundation to warn the public about the dangers of soy.