Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry  By Austin Frerick

Book Review - Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry

Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry 

By Austin Frerick

Reviewed by Tim Marshall

Publication Date: March 26, 2024, Island Press, Washington.

In Barons, antitrust expert Austin Frerick relates the rise to power of corporate titans in seven agriculture or food industry sectors. When he calls them “Barons”, he is calling upon the memory of the famous ‘robber barons’ such as John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, who contributed significantly to the laissez-faire ideology of American capitalism.

I first experienced the decay of American rural towns driving around the Midwest with Wes Jackson. We visited Matfield Green in Kansas, where Wes and a handful of other writers, artists and concerned philanthropists were trying to revive a dying town. Wes has a poetic way of speaking and described in detail how the prairie States had suffered from industrial agriculture, and his attempts to devise an entirely new approach to grain production on those once fertile grasslands. Frerick also writes keenly and with insight into the demise of small-town rural America, with case studies and personal anecdotes as well as alarming statistics and data about the impact of big business that is determined to grow bigger, and bigger, and relentlessly bigger. I recommend the book highly but be prepared for the shocking message it contains.

Australian readers should note that there are significant differences between America and Australia. America has many more concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOS), otherwise known as factory farms. America has less worker protection delivered by union power or State legislation. It has more billionaires and concentration of wealth. It has greater concentration of agricultural crops, chiefly corn and soy. America pays subsidies to farmers that are almost unknown in Australia except for disaster relief. It has fewer anti-competition measures to limit the growth of huge enterprises and less restriction on acquisition and mergers. America has seen a recent rise in the politics of distrust.

But there is no doubt that we are following the pattern described in Barons, we are just a little behind in the rise of the free market “unshaped by politics” and the tendency for politicians to favour a laissez faire approach. Australia is growing in disparity of wealth and concentration of resources into the hands of the billionaire class. Our farms are getting larger. Family farms are under pressure and corporate farmers are more obvious than they ever have been. Australians would do well to read Barons as the harbinger of what may be to come.

The seven case studies are hogs, grain, coffee, dairy, berries, animal slaughtering and groceries. The stories told are not just about concentration of food production, but also about distribution. Driscoll’s, for instance, the berry barons, own no production; they are a processing and distributing company owned by two brothers, who employ 100,000 people around the world but contract the actual berry growers. They are in every Australian supermarket and most grocery stores. Barons introduces a new concept for many readers, which is monopsony, a market situation in which there is only one buyer. Barons relates the consequences of the combined influence of monopoly and monopsony for family farmers, workers’ rights, animal welfare, air quality, water quality, landscape, rural communities, public health, international trade, and global climate.

Barons claims that “even the DNA of sentient creatures is now owned, manipulated, and sold to American farmers by a handful of corporations”. Four companies control 66 percent of pig genetics, 3 companies control 95 percent of broiler chicken genetics, and two companies control 99 percent of turkey genetics.

Some of the research exposed by Austin Frerick includes the following statistics.

Since 1982 America has lost 80 percent of dairies, 90 percent of hog farms and 50 percent of beef farms.

Cargill is the largest private company in America. They control a quarter of the world grain trade. Their annual revenue is equivalent to the combined annual state tax revenues of South Dakota, New Hampshire, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maine, West Virginia, Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Iowa. The growth of Cargill was facilitated largely by the rise of high fructose corn syrup, which has played a leading role in the rise of obesity related diseases.

The coffee Barons are the Reimann Family, via JAB Holding Company. The company employs 180,000 workers globally and sells more coffee than Starbucks. They are not coffee producers.

Nestle controls 73 percent of baby food and 47 percent of pet food. 

Half of American milk is produced on three percent of its dairy farms, on which cows live only for three productive years. The USA organic dairy industry includes the huge Natural Prairie Dairy, and industrial organic dairy operation that would not be permitted under Australian organic standards.

Also familiar to Australian consumers, is our biggest meat company, the Brazilian-owned JBS Slaughtering. They own forty-three brands in American and have purchased Australian operations including Australian Meat Holdings, Rockdale Beef, Primo, Andrews Meat, and Tatiara Meat. They are deeply embroiled in bribery cases in several continents and have a very poor record for protecting worker safety. Owners of JBS are brothers Joesley and Wesley Batista who have admitted to paying over $150 million in bribes to 1,829 politicians between 2005 and 2017. JBS is also a processor and distributor with no direct ownership of beef farms.

Ten percent of all jobs in the United States are in the food system, but only 12 percent of food workers are farmers. Barons explains how the ‘get big or get out’ approach felt in many Australian rural communities arose from the influence of Ezra Taft Bensen, Secretary of Agriculture to Dwight D. Eisenhower, and continued by Earl Butz who became Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon and then Gerald Ford.

In an interview Frerick says. “Healthy markets are not a natural phenomenon. A market is like a garden; it has to be cultivated and maintained. As a society, we make decisions about how markets are structured, about the rules that govern them and what constitutes fair play, about who holds power and who does not. Once we acknowledge how these decisions have shaped the food system we have now, we can opt to create a different system that better reflects our values.”

Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America's Food Industry
Island Press Hardcover | Publication Date: March 26, 2024
248 pages | 6x9 | Price: $29.00 ISBN: 978-1-64283-269-3
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