contents page
previous next
zoom out zoom in
thumbnails double page single page large double page
fit width
click to zoom in click to zoom in  
contents page
previous next
zoom out zoom in
thumbnails double page single page large double page
fit width


grammes, on the whole, do not support farmers who raise food sustainably, but are instead geared towards creating export markets for American corporate agribusiness and protecting multinational food and staple commodity corporations' interests in foreign markets. The Clinton administration has for example demanded that the US Congress pass legislation giving the USDA "fast-track" authority, which would mean that it could negotiate trade agreements to open new markets, without amendments by Congress. This "fast-track" legislation is opposed by a coalition of more than 60 farmer and farm-related organizations that say they have been more hurt than helped by previous trade pacts.16

Sports, entertainment, news, fast food and movies have become barely indistinguishable.

The attitude of most industrialized governments has been one of casual lack of concern. Wedded to the principle of 'comparative advantage' whereby countries are encouraged to specialize in those crops best suited to their environments, the emphasis has been on transforming the rural economies of (particularly Third World) countries to suit the requirements of the global economy. The hidden costs of long-distance transportation of goods, and the accompanying packaging and preservatives are routinely overlooked by economists, and consumers are fooled into believing that massproduced, so-called 'cheap foods' are cheaper than that produced locally without the use of chemicals.

Food a s Entertainment . Fast-food is taking over popular culture. American television viewers are bombarded with adverts that combine images from both food and entertainment industries. Asteroids from summer movie blockbusters are shown crashing into "Big Macs" to demonstrate that you can double your fun by consuming both fastfood and films at the same time. Sports, entertainment, news, fastfood and movies are barely indistinguishable, and the marriage of food and entertainment is no accident. It is rather the result of a concerted effort by both multinational agribusiness and food corporations and media conglomerates to take over more and more of every day life and spending habits. Disney and McDonald's have signed a ten-year global marketing agreement. McDonald's has joined with the National Basketball Association and the Olympics in their promotions, and the mammoth Tricon Global Restaurants, the world's largest fast-food restaurant operating business with 30,000 restaurants, has a three-year deal with the US National Collegiate Athletic Association.17 The $55-billion soft-drink industry is spending millions on brand placement in cash-starved public schools in the US and all these companies 'help' teachers with instructional materials, laden with advertising, fast-food corporations now supply food for 13 per cent of American schools. The result has been, as they describe in their own literature, a direct

"My, you really do have a serious eating disorder".

avenue into the habits of their "core consumers".18

The media are highly implicated in the proliferation of fast-food culture. For those corporations that control television, radio, news, music, movies, sports and all the hardware, technology and programming that comes with it, advertising revenues from food companies are significant. McDonald's alone spent $548.7 million in advertising last year, 95 per cent of it in television.19 And those revenues are linked to tie-ins with companies like Times-Warner, with $13.36 billion in sales, which controls a vast sports, news, music and publishing empire and thus controls much of the ideas and illu sions that dominate American life. Disney, which reaps $22.5 bil lion in sales from entertainment, massively supports fast-food corporations by promoting their products. Universal Studios is owned by Seagram Co., the liquor giant, which also owns Tropicana Juice and Polygram records. Not surprisingly, we get blatant product placements in our movies and plastic versions of Disney movie characters with our mindless happy meals. The "Teenie Beanie Baby" promotion by US McDonald's demonstrates that sometimes it isn't even about the food any more. People have been buying dozens of dinners just to get the toys, and throwing away the food.20

Americans get their news primarily from commercial television, and the entertainment industry is clear about its priorities. It admits that i t is not about delivering information any more. As one executive from KNBC, owned by the $91-billion giant General Electric, put it, his news department is not performing a public service - rather, he said, they are "in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers."21 Like a chorus, the food and entertainment industries keep echoing each other's message. The head of Starbucks Coffee, which had $1 billion in sales in 1997, made this very clear when he stated that he was not in the food commodity business, not even in the fast-food business - rather, he said, he was in "the business of providing instant gratification."22

Not all the influence of the media is so indirect. Public television news in the United States is sponsored by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), who spent millions of dollars repeating every day, in every possible public and commercial market, that they can be trusted as the "Supermarket to the World". These ads do not sell ADM's corn or soybean products they are intended to inoculate the public against their concerns about the food supply and to convince consumers that technology, bio-engineering and genetics wil l solve the problem of world hunger. Rupert Murdoch's Fox television, which owns and operates most television stations in the United States, actually shelved a series which documented damaging evidence against the use of hormones in dairy cows and connections between biotechnology giant Monsanto and US government agencies. According to the two award-winning reporters commissioned to prepare the story, its removal came just days after Monsanto pressured Fox News Network to drop the series.

An interesting study prepared by Professor Tim Lang and Dr. Martin Caraher at the Centre for Food Policy at Thames Valley University, London, throws another light on food and entertainment. They found that there is a dramatic rise in the number of cooking shows on television in the UK, a trend that holds true in America. Cooking has become entertainment, even while it appears that people in industrialized countries are cooking less. At the same time, as their study shows, young people are losing cooking skills. 93 per cent of those surveyed could master a computer game, yet only 38 per cent could cook a potato in the oven.23

A look at consumer spending in the United States reveals our priorities, when i t comes to food and entertainment. In 1956, the average American household spent 18.6 per cent of its income on food. By 1997 it had fallen to only 9.6 per cent.24 (By contrast, food can take up 80 per cent or more of personal income in less developed countries.) While relative spending on food has plummeted, real personal income has risen. Just last year, household income in the US was up by 4.8 per cent.25 During the last few decades Amer-


The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 1, January/February 1999 ENTERTAINMENT FOODS

icans dramatically increased spending on entertainment, such as music, movies, indoor and outdoor recreation and sports, and ticket prices for these events continues to rise. While the price of food has dropped, the price of tickets to concerts, movies and sporting events, even museums, has almost doubled. Americans are also spending increasing amounts on gambling and drugs. Gambling, which used to be a highly restricted activity in the United States, is now so increasingly available that i t attracts over 100 million players and takes 9 per cent of total personal income.26

In 1996 Americans spent more that $8 billion on explicit videos, live acts, adult cable programming, magazines and other sex entertainment items, an amount larger than Hollywood's entire domestic box office receipts.

Americans spend another $150 billion a year on recreational drugs and are spending more than ever on sex-related "entertainment".27 The United States has become the world's largest producer of pornography. In 1996 Americans spent more that $8 billion on explicit videos, live acts, adult cable programming, magazines and other sex entertainment items, an amount larger than Hollywood's entire domestic box office receipts.28 More consumer money was spent on sex entertainment, according to an article in the February 1997 issue of the . than on country music, Broadway's plays, non-profit theatres, opera, ballet, jazz and classical performances combined.

Spending our personal income on entertainment and fast-food degrades the meaning of food and elevates entertainment as a central value in our lives. What is important about this is that we have not just abandoned the kitchen, as our grandparents may have left their farms and given up growing food a generation or two ago, but we have relinquished something much more precious: the right and ability to feed ourselves. The blending of the food and the entertainment industries is what finally blurs the difference between feeding ourselves and being fed. It creates "the entertained mind", a passive mentality which is so overstuffed with fuzzy information that it no longer senses its own powerlessness. One social activist in the United States, Caroline Casey, quipped that fast-food is really "consensus food". She added that at the time of the American 'Desert Storm' war in the Gulf she ate at a McDonald's, and "for about two hours afterwards, I had no problem with our foreign policy."

We thought we were giving up drudgery by not growing food

"If you think they put too much junk in our food,

you should see what they put in their own

and by eating out. We have been sold on expediency. But do we really have more time, a better family life, a more robust health? The loss of control over one's food supply is a loss of a basic freedom. Powerlessness to feed oneself is a fundamental indication of personal poverty. But we are not alarmed. Advertising tells us we have a choice: we are free to select cheap fast-food, to enjoy the easy convenience and variety that it offers. But the illusion might be shattered i f we noticed that this seemingly endless array of products is all produced, grown, packaged, shipped, promoted and sold by a small handful of corporations and that the profits from all these parts of the food system end up in the same place. In the end, what corporate control of the industrialized food system really gives us are 31 artificial flavours, and no choice between junk food and the real McCoy.D

References 1. New York Times: $100 million dollar fast-food industry, March 1, 1997. Parade

Magazine, What America Eats, November 16, 1997, page 4, gave an estimate of $103 billion for the industry, noting that more than 26,000 fast-food restaurants have opened in the US between 1995 and 1997. More recently, Rolling Stone Magazine, September 3, 1998, uses $106 billion in an editorial on page 17. 2. McDonald's feeds almost one per cent of the world population each day, serving

food and culture in what William Greider called "The advance scout for the global revolution". (Far Eastern Economic Review, November 20, 1997) There are now golden arches in 109 countries, with a total of 23,132 restaurants as of the end of 1997. (Wall Street Journal, April 3, 1998.) McDonald's has 2,700 domestic franchises (N.Y. Times, op.cit.l.) And McDonald's has plans to open another 2,000 a year around the globe (Parade, op.cit.l.) 3. Although the US has about a million farm-workers who earn an average of $5.58 an

hour, there are about 2.5 million fast-food workers who earn an average of $5.74 an hour, making them the largest group of low-paid workers in America. Eric Schlosser, fast-food Nation, Rolling Stone, September 3, 1998, page 70. 4. "Eating Out in America: Impact on Food Choices and Nutrient Profiles" United

States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, speech by Lori Borrud, Food Surveys Research Group, regarding the 1994-1996 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes. Also, the USDA estimates that Americans routinely throw away and waste onefourth of the nation's total food supply. (USDA report, July 1997) 5. Rolling Stone, op.cit.3 page 61. 6. Ibid. I . Ibid. 8. "Shrinking competition in the food industry has enabled agribusiness to pay farmers

below their costs of production for raw food products while increasing the prices consumers pay." Since 1980, farmers share of the food dollar has fallen 40 percent. Farm Aid News, June 28, 1995. 9. USDA, Economic Research Service, "Food Consumption, Prices, and Expenditures,

1970-95". 10. Associated Press, May 29, 1998. II . The American Cancer Society says that the "lifetime risk" for Americans to develop

cancer or die from it is 1 in 2 for men, and for women the risk is 1 in 3. 12. Rolling Stone, op.cit.3 page 61. 13. USDA, Agriculture Fact Book, 1996, published in 1997. 14. Joel Dyer, Harvest of Rage, page 15. Dyer's portrait of massive poverty and despair

in rural America includes the statement that "Suicide has become the number one cause of death on America's farms." Introduction, page 3. 15. American Farmland Trust. 16. Reuters, September 10, 1998. 17. Associated Press reports that Tricon had $20 billion in sales, closing in on

McDonald's with $30 billion. Sports and food industry deal notes from Rolling Stone, op.cit. 18. Wall Street Journal, September 15, 1997 and see The Nation, April 27, 1998-12-22. 19. Wall Street Journal, April 3, 1998. 20. Marin Independent Journal, May 30, 1998. 21. Public statement at KNBC, Los Angeles 1993, in response to question by author. 22. Parade Magazine, op.cit. I . 23. Martin Caraher and Tim Lang, Centre for Food Policy, citing a 1997 study by the

National Heart Forum in "Cookery Writers and Presenters as Agents of Change". June 1998. 24. "Changing Tax Scene", GNS Graphics from IRS and Tax Foundation sources,

published in Marin Independent Journal, February 17, 1997. 25. US Department of Commerce Statistics. 26. James Bishop, High Stakes, Phoenix Magazine, January 1998, page 48. 27. "Drug War Costs U.S. Billions", Gannett News Service, March 10, 1997. 28. Eric Schlosser, The Business of Pornography, U.S. News & World Report, February

10, 1997.

The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 1, January/February 1999