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The Political Economy of Doritos: Demystifying the Agro-Industrial Complex

July 2, 2011

This afternoon’s session of the 2011 Socialism Conference gave us a chance to hear Arun Gupta, a writer for the Indypendent.

He began his talk by giving out Doritos to everyone in the room, in order to de-construct this so-called food item. According to Arun Doritos corners 32% of the corn chip market.

Doritos are engineered to stimulate all the human senses. It has a day-glow orange, which tells our brains that this is a cheesy food. Certain acids within the product stimulate the salivary glands. Doritos also stimulates one of the flavor senses – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.

Next there is a dry/toasted corn taste, which has been around since the beginning of human evolution where humans have an association of food with fire. Doritos break down quickly in terms of how much we have to chew them, with the average being 10 chews per ship compared to most real foods, which require 20 chews. It is as some critics call the baby food of adults.

Once you have digested it, it stimulates the high fat stimuli within the body which gives you some pleasure, but also wants you consume more of it. You also have this orange powder on our fingers, which we often lick off, thus engaging yet another one of the human senses. Fritos Lays in effect has engineers a food that is more like a drug in the form of a process food.

Doritos doesn’t cost much to produce, but creates tremendous profits taken from the consumer. Doritos is a great example of how the agro-industrial food system uses international capital as a means to make massive profits.

We don’t really know where the corn comes from that Frito Lays uses in the production of Doritos, but it likely comes from the US, which is a highly subsidized GMO corn. For a 99 cents bag of corn chips, it costs Frito Lays about 1 cent a bag for the food costs. Corn Flakes for example costs about 2 cents a box of cereal, since most of the money goes into marketing and packaging.

Another aspect worth thinking about is the idea that Doritos is also patented, which provides a form of monopoly capitalism. Some companies have tried to compete with Doritos, but since that product is patented they cannot reproduce it.

Another component of the agro-Industrial food system is that it is a de-peasantization of the land, where small farmers are forced off the land. Corn production is a good example of how this has happened in the last 100 years and more recently with NAFTA and Mexico.

Gupta then talks about the few companies that control every aspect of the Agro-Industrial Complex, which would include the seed/grain companies, massive growers, processors, distributors and marketers. With this kind of monopolization, Gupta points out that we don’t really have a free market system. This begins with colonialism, but even more so in the last 100 years with industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture was designed initially for domestic production there were eventually huge reserves, which has led to a desire of the US to export these food reserves abroad, even if it wasn’t food that fit into the diet of other countries. The US has used food as a weapon of foreign aid and “development” projects.

With this kind of development we also see the rise of the institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, which forced other countries to open their markets to the global grain cartel. The World Bank for instance would impose these structural changes to local markets in order for them to get bank loans. One example is the World Bank forced Haiti to stop growing their own rice so that the US could flood that market with US grains, thus making Haiti even more dependent on the Agro-Industrial Complex.

Now we see more of an emphasis on bio-mass, since there has been a new speculative market for trading in bio-mass for fuels. This has not only translated in an increase in the price for basic food items, it has meant that more of the Agro-Industry is now controlled and financed by companies like Goldman Sachs. This dynamic caused massive problems and even riots in 2008 with the global financial crash since many people around the world could no longer afford basic food items.

What we need to do is to push the idea that food is a public good. Essentially this means that everyone has a right to healthy, real food. This is a necessary step to counter the Agro-Industrial Complex. Another step that needs to happen is to reclaim local food systems and food production. Small-scale farming could work if countries like the US shifted the money spent on subsidizing the Agro-Industrial Complex and gave it to local and small farmers.

The other problem is commodity fetishism, where were extract food out of a social context. He points out some contradictions within veganism or the fact that some food experts say we should support Wal-Mart’s sale of organic items such as milk and yogurt, which is a flawed approach to achieving food justice. (buying organic foods from Wal-Mart is promoted in the film Food Inc.) With veganism the problem can arise where people will consume a tremendous amount of soy products and soy production globally has caused a tremendous amount of both ecological destruction and labor exploitation.

In many was Gupta did an incredible job of deconstructing the inherently destructive nature of the global agro-industrial complex. The only area that he did not spend some time on was the role that marketing plays in getting us all to consume food-stuff like Doritos. Since companies like Frito Lays spend so little on food costs and more on marketing it would be useful to look at the techniques used to manipulate the public into desiring products like Doritos.

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