The Inequality Pandemic: Agribusiness Billionaires Profit from Pain in Oxfam Brief

A recent research brief from Oxfam International, Profiting from Pain, uncovers the massive wealth inequalities that contribute to global food insecurity.

While prices of food, energy, and other basic items rose from 2019 to 2022, the brief finds companies including Cargill and Walmart earned more than they have over the last 23 years. Oxfam reports that there are now 2,668 billionaires in the world–that is 573 more billionaires compared to 2019. At the same time, between 2019 and 2022, a quarter of a million people around the world experienced poverty and food insecurity.

Irit Tamir, Director of Oxfam America’s Private Sector Department, tells Food Tank, “if governments were able to tax the wealthiest, there would be more money available to invest in poverty-busting public services like education, health, and social care.”

Tamir says that taxing industries on excess profits can help redistribute wealth to vulnerable communities. She explains that industries charging more for basic items, including food, throughout the pandemic, should be taxed accordingly.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, food price inflation, compounded by supply chain and labor shortages, has added to an already unstable food system. The brief finds that corporate tax breaks have increased profits for the wealthiest companies in the food, energy, pharmaceutical, and technology sectors.

In the food and agriculture sector for instance, billionaires saw their collective wealth increase by US$382 billion between 2020 and 2022. According to the brief, together with just three other companies, the Cargill family dominates 70 percent of the global agriculture market. In 2021, Cargill made US$5 billion in net income, its largest profit ever. The company’s profits are expected to increase further in 2022.

Archer-Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, and (Louis)-Dreyfus have consolidated power over years through their roles in biofuels investment, large-scale land acquisitions, and financialization of agriculture commodity markets, Tamir explains. This consolidated power makes supply chains more vulnerable to price shocks, climate change, and conflict, and concentrates “greater power in fewer people.”

Additionally, the food and technology industries avoid taxes which perpetuate this corporate consolidation of power. Tamir mentions that companies including Amazon “park their intellectual property in tax havens.” This tax loophole is bad for everyone because, “it deprives governments of much needed revenue for public services or food aid when a crisis hits, like the one we’re seeing now in the horn [of Africa],” Tamir tells Food Tank, referring to the worsening drought, causing a hunger crisis that will impact 20 million people by United Nations estimates.

Tamir hopes to see the United States Congress introduce tax reform outlined in the Build Back Better proposal that can help close corporate tax avoidance loopholes and prevent tax haven abuse.

Oxfam also urges governments to create immediate and permanent billionaire tax policies to support the most vulnerable members of society. Argentina, for example, has introduced a one-time wealth tax on its wealthiest citizens as part of the country’s COVID-19 recovery plan.

In the past, other countries, such as Thailand, have introduced progressive taxes to promote social welfare for their most vulnerable communities. Since 2001, Thailand’s Universal Coverage Scheme provides free healthcare to a population of 65 million people by taxing its wealthiest members, and, Tamir mentions, “the system was implemented when Thailand had the same per capita income as the U.S. did in 1930.”

“Costa Rica is another example that has universal public services,” Tamir tells Food Tank, referring to the country’s free education and public healthcare programs. “Nepal, Sri Lanka, these are countries that are not wealthy countries and yet have been able to provide universal public services through taxation.”

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Photo courtesy of Fabio Bracht, Unsplash

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