An Urban's Rural View

The Blurring Line Between Big Food and Little Food

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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It's a curious feature of our culture that when we spell the word "Big" with a capital B, we often mean "bad." Big business. Big government. Big Ag. These Bigs aren't admiring adjectives. When we use Big like this, we are invoking our instinctive American fear of too much power being concentrated in too few hands.

By contrast, in our culture little is often good. We like small business. We root for the little guy. Increasingly we buy Little Food. Never heard of it? Michael Pollan, a literary godfather of the so-called food movement, recently used this term in an essay in the New York Times (…). He said Little Food comprises the farmers and processors that provide organic, local and artisanal food. All food, in Pollan's view, should be Little Food.

Please note Pollan's spelling. Doesn't that capital L smack of a Little that's on the verge of getting big -- or maybe even Big? Which raises an interesting question: How will the public react as the lines between Little and Big become blurred?

And blurred they are becoming. As individual Little Food businesses succeed, they inevitably grow; some of them have already matured into significant corporations. Collectively, according to Pollan, the sector has annual sales of $50 billion - which is little only in comparison to Big Food, whose annual retail sales are in the trillions.

Then there's the biggest blurring of all, the fast unfolding trend of Big Food companies buying Little Food firms. There have been dozens of these acquisitions, as detailed in a chart at the website of the Cornucopia Institute, which promotes "sustainable and organic agriculture" (…). The most intriguing recent example is Tyson Foods' purchase of a 5% stake in Beyond Meat, a California outfit whose plant-protein burger is said to be so meat-like that it "sizzles and oozes fat while cooking on a griddle" (…).

The purists among Pollan's supporters deplore this commingling of Little and Big. For examples, check out the opinion section of the Cornucopia Institute website. To these true believers, "big organic farm" is an oxymoron. They consider USDA a "corrupt corporate lapdog," guilty of giving organic certification to milk and eggs from large farms. The purists worry that "a number of large corporations are significantly vested in organics, especially the processed food industry (General Mills, WhiteWave, Smuckers, Coca-Cola, etc.)." (…)

Does the broader public share these concerns? Not very strongly, it seems. Organic food continues to fly off the grocery-store shelves. Sales in 2015 were up 11%, whereas the overall food market grew only 3%, according to the Organic Trade Association (…). So far, at least, shoppers don't seem to care whether Big Food produces it (or owns the companies that produce it) as long as it meets Little Food standards.

Little Food is getting big the same way Big Food got big, by making products many shoppers like at a price they're willing to pay. That this price is usually higher than the Big Food price is OK with them -- they've bought into Little Food's story. They'd gladly pay a little less for Little, though, and they just might be able to in time thanks to the blurring of Big and Little, which tends to bring Big Food efficiency to Little Food production.

Americans may sometimes think Big is bad, but when Big delivers good things they don't obsess about the source. Odds are good we have not seen the end of the blurring.

Urban Lehner



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10/23/2016 | 7:03 AM CDT
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Urban Lehner
10/18/2016 | 6:09 PM CDT
That's a thought-provoking comment, Don. The world is changing, slowly but surely. Because the change is slow, we sometimes don't notice it. If the frog had been plopped in boiling water it would have jumped out, but the water was cold at first.
10/18/2016 | 8:21 AM CDT
You are on a roll recently. Yesterday,s WSJ food section was really good.. Seems both the customer and the supplier are changing much faster than traditional farmers. We are still cherry picking 'science' as the customer moves toward healthier diets than Big Macs If TV dinners changed eating habits in the 50.s and 60,s , it seems current issues have same potential for another dramatic shift. And corn and soybeans are a small player in this shift. Don Halcomb