Last Thursday, Philip Howard, an associate professor in community sustainability at Michigan State University, gave a lecture on food and power, concentrating on how manufacturers and sellers of packaged foods exercise power over consumers.

Howard focused on ways that food firms convince consumers to buy their products and, in doing so, change the way our society operates, ultimately taking power from consumers.

One form of this is deskilling, in which firms provide a conveniently pre-processed product, such as bagged salad mix or frozen oatmeal. If consumers rely on the processed food too much, eventually they lose the skills to process the food themselves, relying on the firm to do it for them.

Howard also brought up spatial colonization as a way that consumers were losing power. The way that things are physically laid out affects what consumers can buy. He brought up the placement of vending machines, which affects where we can buy food, and the layout of store shelves, which affects what consumers buy.

Howard focused on three product categories – beer, bagged salad and soy milk.

Howard explained that nearly 70% of the beer market in the United States was controlled by two firms – AB InBev, and SABMiller.

They control not only which beers are produced and where they are distributed, but many supermarkets and liquor stores also allow them to control how all beers are displayed on store shelves, allowing them to control what products consumers see.

He also said that a merger between the two firms was in the works, and looked as though it would be completed. Though in the US, the companies would be forced to sell off some of their brands before merging due to antitrust regulations, in other parts of the world, nearly all beer sales would be controlled by a single conglomerate.

Bagged salad mix, Howard explained, not only depended on consumers being less skilled at cooking, but also reduced their skills by allowing them to rely on food manufacturers.

He also discussed the way that many leafy green producers were causing environmental and economic problems by using scarce California groundwater below market rates, and the way that the production chain increases risks of bacterial outbreaks.

When talking about soy milk, Howard focused on the history of the Silk brand. Its founder, Steve Demos, made a marketing coup when he realized that his organic soy milk should be next to regular milk in the refrigerator section of supermarkets, despite being shelf stable. This decision made consumers more comfortable buying it, since it seemed closer to what they were used to.

After Silk was acquired by a larger firm, Dean Foods, it began to use non-organic ingredients, while keeping the price of the soy milk the same. Demos disagreed, and left the company, later founding a probiotic juice brand.

Howard also explained that there were ways to resist firms controlling our spending habits. He used craft beers and homebrewing as ways that beer firms could be resisted. He also said that consumers can combat deskilling by processing foods themselves, noting that every time there’s a bacteria outbreak from bagged leafy greens, sales at farmer’s markets go up.

Howard also took audience questions. When asked if anyone had ever tried to keep him from publishing his work, he responded that he was worried that someone would for a few years.

Later, though, he began getting compliments from different food manufacturers, and even had Monsanto employees tell him that they used his work to keep track of their competitors.

The lecture was put on by the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities, whose theme this year is “Food.” Information on upcoming events can be found at humanities.utulsa.edu.

Information on Philip Howard’s work can be found at msu.edu/~howardp.