Interview with Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch

by Alexina Cather, MPH

By Alexina Cather

Wenonah Hauter is the Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based group committed to ensuring a safe, accessible, and sustainable food and water supply. She has worked extensively on legislative and grassroots strategies to improve food, water, energy and environmental issues at the national, state and local level.

An accomplished organizer dedicated to policy change, Hauter was a Senior Organizer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Policy Director for Citizen Action, and the Director of Public Citizen, Energy and Environment Program. She is also the author of Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment and Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America. She has a M.S. in Applied Anthropology from the University of Maryland.

I was able to do an email interview with her about food and energy policy and her work with Food & Water Watch.

New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): What inspired you to become a food and energy advocate? You have an academic background as an anthropologist—was that part of your influence? If so, how?

Wenonah Hauter (WH): I grew up on a farm and saw how much work it is to produce food. This gave me both a real respect for farmers and a lifelong interest in food issues. Through the years, I’ve become more and more interested in the intersection between food, water and energy policies and how they intersect. It’s basically about how a few large economic interests are exerting their political and economic power over the resources that we depend on the most and in the process are wrecking the environment and our democracy. When a handful of food, energy or private energy companies make all the rules, it’s good for profits, but bad for people and the planet. We founded Food & Water Watch to help build a movement powerful enough to begin taking back our democracy and to protect the things we depend on to live. We want to bring large numbers of people into the political process. Anthropology is a personal interest of mine–it’s in part the study of humankind and how culture is reproduced. That certainly relates to the job ahead of us in creating a world that is more sustainable for the benefit of future generations.

FPC: Can you tell us about Food & Water Watch? What is your main purpose, and how does it differ from other organizations focused on food policy?

WH: Yes, as I mentioned above, what I think sets Food & Water Watch apart is our focus on the dynamics of power. For example, consolidation in the food industry means that a handful of players control virtually every aspect of food production. They are economically powerful, and can lobby our government on everything from the Farm Bill to antitrust matters to rules that oversee marketing processed food to kids. So while some of the food movement focuses on buying local or organic, for example, we are a bit different in that we feel we can’t really shop our way out of our messy food issues. We need fundamental political reforms to really tackle the problems with our food system.

FPC: What was your motivation to start your own organization?

WH: I worked with many of the original Food & Water Watch staff while I was at Public Citizen managing the Energy & Environment program. Public Citizen is a wonderful policy and lobbying group that focuses on good government and a range of important issues. I wanted to build an organization that focused on grassroots power and working with allies at the state and local level to begin building the political power to take back our democracy so that we can literally save our planet. I believe that food and water issues move people, because those are really central to our survival. I wanted to start an organization that directly involved people all over the country to fight for our democracy, and food and water issues hit people in the gut. I wanted to be able to lead campaigns that inspire people to ask for what we need, rather than compromise on our health and environment. I wanted an organization that excited people, and I think we are doing that with our bold stands on issues.

FPC: In your opinion, how has food and energy policy transformed over the past century, and how does it relate to food insecurity in the United States?

WH: As I looked at both in Foodopoly and my new book, Frackopoly, both energy and food policy have been dictated by a handful of companies and powerful individuals over the past century, which is not only bad for the planet, but it’s also bad for people. Food and energy companies are looking out for their shareholders, which is their fiduciary duty, of course. So, they aren’t looking out for what’s best for everyday people, some of whom have to struggle to put food on the table, or keep their homes heated in the winter. But what’s worse, they are actively lobbying to stop policies that could help people where their profits might be impacted. I think whether it’s lobbying to cut food stamps or lobbying to export natural gas, it’s many of the same elite interests behind both pushes. Whether it’s ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), the Koch Brothers, or industry-funded front groups, there is a concerted effort on behalf of our most powerful industries to push forward an agenda that benefits a few economic interests at the expense of the many.

For instance, Monsanto and the biotech industry claim to be developing GMO technologies to feed people, but that is a very cynical claim. Poor farmers in the developing world have been saving seeds for centuries and they don’t have the resources to buy seed and the companion chemicals. This isn’t about feeding people; it’s about forcing peasant farmers to buy their products, rather than depending on their own traditional seeds and methods of farming. Having a handful of seed/chemical companies in charge of the the things necessary for growing food is very dangerous. So, everything is connected and what it really boils down to is an agenda that leads to income inequality, a worsening environment, and, really, an attack on citizens and our democracy.

FPC: Food & Water Watch stresses the importance of large-scale grassroots movements to make change. But how do we inform and motivate the community members—the average Joe or Jane to take action?

WH: We find that many people are really ready to go out and fight for what they believe in when its related to their families’ or communities’ health and well being. They are tired of just working for narrow goals that seem politically possible. They are ready to fight for the kind of future that they want.

Fortunately, there are many new ways to communicate with people, including social media and many alternative news sites. Although it’s increasingly hard for example to get these important issues in the media, given that it too has been greatly consolidated—only a handful of companies control most of the media people are exposed to in the United States, and as you know, there are a lot of issues, many of which we work on directly, that don’t get the attention they deserve in the media. So, we have developed a strategy that includes having 16 offices around the country from which we can get involved at the state level and often at the local level, for instance, passing resolutions against the use of antibiotics by industrialized animal factories to increase their production goals. I strongly believe that no change can be made without helping to amplify people’s voices and having a grassroots organizing strategy.

FPC: What do you believe was the United States government’s greatest failing in controlling massive food and energy industries? In other words, what brought us here?

WH: I wrote two books about that! I’d encourage all your readers to check them out! But as I’ve hinted at, much of it is about consolidated economic power and its impact on democracy. It has to do with the growth of monopoly power, which grew much worse under the Reagan Administration and has continued to increase under each administration, both Democrats and Republicans. When a few companies dominate an industry, they have the political and economic power to write the rules that govern it. They’ve literally stolen our democracy.

FPC: What was the greatest challenge you confronted in banning fracking in New York? Did any elements of the “battle” catch you off guard?

WH: Food & Water Watch, which was the first national group to call for a ban on fracking was one of a handful of groups (Frack Action, Catskill Mountain Keeper, Water Defense and others) that put together a coalition, New Yorkers Against Fracking, that eventually included 200+ grassroots organizations around the state. We collectively put together a several year campaign focused on Governor Cuomo. I think it was less that we were caught off guard and more that there was the constant challenge of organizing a statewide campaign that had lots of moving parts. It is a true testimony of the power of people and how fighting for what we believe in can change the course of history. Literally thousands of people were involved, including many “birddogging” the Governor until he could go nowhere without being greeted with ban fracking signs and activists.

FPC: Your most recent book, “Frackopoly,” exposes the history and dangers of fracking. What do you believe is the best alternative for sustainable energy?

WH: When I worked on renewables in the 1990s, they were ready then. Almost thirty years later, wind, solar and geothermal energy are 5.5 percent of electricity production. So, I have to say, renewables and energy efficiency are it, but we just need to build the political will. This is not something the energy industry will let us do easily. There is a lot of momentum against renewables and energy efficiency because there are enormous and obscene amounts of money and influence peddling involved thanks to the industry’s consolidated power. However, a growing movement is really turning out to demand something better, as the recent democratic debates have shown. For the first time ever, a major candidate took a bold stand on climate change to demand a ban on fracking. That is significant progress but there is more to do. I’d encourage your readers to check out the March for a Clean Energy Revolution, happening at the DNC in July, that will bring even more pressure on our decision makers on this front.

FPC: If you could change one food or energy-related policy, what would it be and why?

WH: I’d strengthen anti-trust policy across the board. Mergers and acquisitions typically make industry more powerful and better poised to lobby on behalf of more profits. This usually means people lose out. I think it’s the root of many of our environmental and economic problems.

FPC: Finally, what do you consider to be Food & Water Watch’s greatest victory thus far?

WH: We were thrilled to have played a major role in creating the political space that has made calling for a ban on fracking a viable demand and we are proud to have played an important part in banning fracking in New York, passing a moratorium in Maryland, and passing many local measures to stop fracking. We’ve also played a major role in removing arsenic from chicken production, helping keep many communities’ water under public control, and helping pass GMO labeling laws in several states. There are really a lot of things our staff have contributed to that we can be proud of, so it would be hard to pick just one. You can see some of our biggest victories here:


Grew up in: Virginia

Background and Education: M.S. degree in Applied Anthropology from the University of Maryland.

One word you would use to describe our food system: Unhealthy

Food policy hero: Kathy Ozer, National Family Farm Coalition

Your breakfast this morning: organic yogurt and fruit

Favorite food: the fruits and veggies that are in season

Social media must follow/Food policy website(s) you read: Common Dreams, Democracy Now, Civil Eats, Mother Jones, Alternet, Ecowatch

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