Health and Nutrition: Agribusiness

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Health and Nutrition: Agribusiness

by Sue Taffler

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 1, January 1975, p. 26 &  29

This year I have been growing vegetables in my backyard, and when I can, baking my own bread. While a sense of back-to-the-earth may be a part of my motivations, my vegetable garden is also, in a way, my personal protest against capitalism. I have come to realize that foods are corporate products, not grown to feed us, but grown and processed to maximize profits. Not to say that I eat politically, but foods in the supermarket are the way they are today largely because of choices made by monopolies and conglomerates. 

Food production and processing has become concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations. For example, three firms make ¼ to ⅓ of the profits in the meat industry.1 Nine canning and freezing companies (out of 1200) make 55% of the profits in vegetable processing. There are fewer farms — 2. 7 million in 1969 compared 6.8 million in 1935 — and small family farms are vanishing, to be replaced by large-scale farms. Many farms contract directly for their entire crops with large processors like Del Monte. Beef cattle are raised more and more (75% currently) in massive food factories called feed lots. Food monopolies are growing (Kraftco and Borden in dairy products, for example). Many nonfood industries, such as Tenneco, Kaiser, and ITT, sensing that food is where the money is, are investing their huge financial resources in food.2 

Large supermarkets and chain stores dominate the marketplace. The four largest firms control 40o/o of retail food sales in 175 of the 205 largest metropolitan areas.3 With this power, competition is out. Supermarkets no longer need to cut food prices in order to increase sales; they create demand through advertising. We are constantly bombarded with new products. Whoever had to be told to buy cheddar cheese the way we are told to buy individually packaged frozen pudding? The supermarkets provide so much variety that many now carry 8000 separate items.4

While a lot could be said about the effects of agribusiness policies on food prices, my problem is what agribusiness has done to the food itself. Foods in the supermarket are often adulterated or diluted. Meats contain hormones and antibiotics. Cheese products with only a small percentage of actual cheese in them are often sold a higher prices per ounce than regular cheese.5 Dairy substitutes use a lengthy list of cheap synthetics instead of expensive milk. Juice drinks with water and sugar as their main ingredients boast about their vitamin C enrichment. The so-called enrichment of foods (as in breakfast cereals and packaged baked goods) replaces only a small fraction of what was destroyed in the processing. Compare a pound of fresh potatoes with a pound of potato chips, filled with oil, preservatives, and additives, and elaborately packaged. Not only must we pay more for the processed potatoes, but we lose something in terms of nutritional value. In the processing of instant mashed potatoes, 40–95% of the vitamin C is destroyed.6 If these foods are not a danger to us, they certainly do not facilitate good health. 

The worst insult in the supermarket, I think, is the fresh produce. New varieties have been bred for longer shelf life, durability in lengthy transport, bulk, and eye-catching qualities such as color. Supermarket tomatoes and oranges bear little resemblance to the homegrown varieties — nutrition and taste have been sacrificed for profit.

What are the solutions? A return to small family farms and “Mom-and-Pop” groceries is unrealistic. Del Monte and Borden are here to stay. Even the small health food stores with their stock of alternative foods often charge exhorbitant prices and some have been known to sell more “organic” foods than have been grown.7 

Regulatory agencies (USDA, FDA, and FTC) instead of protecting the consumer, are tools of the very industries they supposedly regulate. Their policy-making positions are staffed by people recruited from agribusiness. Food corporations have active lobbying forces in Congress and make large investments in political campaigns. Consumers, on the other hand. are an interest group without power.

Today, the consumer movement asks in vain for changes from businesses it has no control over. Boycotts have limited strength and may even be counterproductive. For instance, meat producers responded to a boycott by cutting back production and discarding animals without putting them on the market. Coops and collectives, encouraging signs of group action, arc still small scale and affect the general market little. 

Apologists for the food industries say it is impossible to have the old-fashioned unprocessed additive-free foods in a system of mass distribution for large city populations far from any farm acreage. Indeed, they say, we actually have more variety and better food than we used to.8 We cannot accept this.

Until there is a change in the economic system, it will be difficult for the consumer to control the production and distribution of food. Decisions will never be made to optimize food quality but only profits. What is to be done? The government must be stopped from creating figure-head consumer councils. Coops, collectives, and even neighborhood gardens, should be enlarged to include more and more people. More important is broad education and even advertising so people will learn what it is they are eating and why. But these are only temporary measures. The struggle against agribusiness can only succeed through group action and eventual mass movement.

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  1. Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE), Packet of Fact Sheets on Food and Inflation (1973), Box 331, Cathedral Station, New York, N.Y., 100025 ($2.50).
  2. Consumers Union, Consumer Reports 39 (1), January 1974, p. 81.
  3. Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE), Packet of Fact Sheets on Food and Inflation (1973), Box 331, Cathedral Station, New York, N.Y., 100025 ($2.50).
  4. Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE), Packet of Fact Sheets on Food and Inflation (1973), Box 331, Cathedral Station, New York, N.Y., 100025 ($2.50).
  5. Advertisement by Tenneco, Time, September 16, 1974, pp. 74–75.
  6. Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE), Packet of Fact Sheets on Food and Inflation (1973), Box 331, Cathedral Station, New York, N.Y., 100025 ($2.50).
  7. Adelle Davis, Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc. (1970).
  8. Manufacturing Chemists’ Association, Food Additives: What They are/How They are Used (1971), 1825 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009 (free).