April 19, 2002   #156
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
From a Public Interest Perspective

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Pogo pretty much said it all when he warned "we have seen the enemy and it is us."

Certainly in this post-September 11 era that warning has gained new meaning. But for rural America and its farming communities recent history is replete with such examples of the inability to recognize who is the enemy and who is the ally.

As one has come to expect author and poet Wendell Berry poignantly and succinctly has brought to the forefront in his recent Progressive Magazine essay (see below) a point that this observer has long contended, that there exists in this country, and the world for that matter, a deep and abiding prejudice against farmers and their rural neighbors. For in our capitalistic and industrialized society we are constantly romanticizing "farming" and the rural landscape while denigrating the people who not only do the actual farming, but provide us with our cornucopia of food.

But in denouncing those who belittle the farmer we cannot forget the fact that, as Berry reminds us, "faith in industrial agriculture as an eternal pillar of human society is getting harder to maintain, not because of the attacks of its opponents but because of the increasingly manifest failures of industrial agriculture itself: massive soil erosion, soil degradation, pollution by toxic chemicals, pollution by animal factory wastes, depletion of aquifers, runaway subsidies, the spread of pests and diseases by the long-distance transportation of food, mad cow disease, indifferent cruelty to animals, the many human sufferings associated with agricultural depression, exploitation of `cheap' labor, the abuse of migrant workers. And now, after the catastrophes of September 11, the media have begun to notice what critics of industrial capitalism have always known: The corporate food supply is highly vulnerable to acts of biological warfare."

Unfortunately farmers themselves often buy into that "faith" by allowing themselves to be converted by corporate agribusiness's three great commandments: 1) substituting technology for labor and capital for efficiency, 2) standardizing the food supply through "factory farms" and assembly line food manufacturing, and 3) the creation of synthetic foods, such as is currently taking place with the introduction of genetic engineering.

By allowing themselves to become willing tools of the corporate agenda farmers have often times allowed themselves to sow their own seeds of self-destruction. Most farmers know what is best for their land, their environment and their communities, but in their desperate attempts to survive they have allowed themselves to take their eye off their ultimate objective and follow corporate agribusiness's latest siren call.

No better example of such seduction can be seen at the present time than in the ethanol controversy. While the Washington Post's editorial board so seldom knows what it is talking about when it comes to farm policy it certainly got it partially right in a recent editorial (see below) concerning that controversy and the present energy bill before the U.S. Congress.

Likewise, the furor that has been created in the media and Congress with the publication by the Environmental Working Group of farm subsidies is another case of farmers allowing themselves to be discredited in the public's consciousness by their supposed allies.

As Keith Mudd, a farmer near Monroe City, Missouri, reminded readers of THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER several months ago, "the Environmental Working Group argues that most of the subsidies go to the largest of farmers, who in turn use it to buy out their smaller neighbors.

"The truth is that all farmers, regardless of size, must use the subsidy just to raise the value received for their commodity above the cost of production. In most instances, the cost of production is covered and something is left over for living expenses. In practically no instance is anything left over that would be considered a return on investment (land and equity).

"As margins shrink, volume must increase to maintain a viable operation. As farm sizes have increased, smaller farmers often quit and seek off-farm employment rather than take on the additional risk to expand. In some cases, the smaller farmers are not financially able to take additional risk. If the Environmental Working Group's theory is correct, higher prices will cause the same results. . . . .

"Most problems on the farms of rural American can be traced to one fundamental cause. The underlying problem with farm income is concentration. As our input suppliers and the purchasers of our products consolidate, they acquire market power. This market power is leveraged against the farmer when he sells his crop. As an example, our current corn stocks as a percentage of use, in other words our leftovers, are at levels that would have been rewarded with $3 a bushel corn. But corn sells for less than $2 a bushel. Cargill and ADM have no serious competition in the marketplace and the government is willing to make up the difference in this minimum price scheme.

"Look somewhere else for a scapegoat; it is not the American farmer draining the United States Treasury. The real transfer of wealth is accumulating in Cargill and ADM's bank accounts," Mudd rightfully concludes.

But the EWG once again, with the publication of the subsidy list, has exhibited a basic ignorance of farm economics, an ignorance that is endemic to many of the organizations in the environmental movement.

For example, as starters, where was the environmental movement some 30 years ago when grassroots farm groups were attempting to target Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) land set-aside payments, which make those present subsidies that so worry the EWG look like pocket change ??? Where were these “environmentalists” when USDA not only denied Congressional attempts to publish the ASCS subsidies in the Congressional Record, but made it near impossible to exert any kind of accountability of to who and to where such payments were being made ???

On the latter point this editor speaks from some personal experience as in the early 1970's he sought as part of an almost lone campaign to examine the list of such payments at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. After some cajoling he was finally allowed to view a computer printout county-by-county of the ASCS payments in a small room with a USDA employee sitting across the table from him, for a half-hour period of time and was instructed beforehand that he could take no written or audio notes.

Those who would have the media and the public focus on the "subsidy question" conveniently escape having to confront and thus work on the fundamental issue that farmers face today --- receiving a fair price for what they produce!!!!

It has become a matter of utmost importance, if not mandatory, for family farmers, both at the grassroots and within their own organizations to start publicly abusing not only their detractors and their so-called friends outside the farm community, but also their own fellow farmers of the myths that currently dominate the thinking of the public and their lawmakers when it comes to farm economics. Those myths were recently candidly stated by Keith Dittrich of the American Corn Growers Association:

"There are too many myths, falsehoods, lies, legends, fabrications, untruths, and fairy tales being perpetrated on America's farmers during this farm bill process," said Dittrich. "I want to identify the biggest three myths currently being used. It is important because these myths are being used as unqualified arguments to force lawmakers, and the nation's farmers, to settle for lower support rates.

"It is untrue that:
* Lower price support rates (CCC loans) increase exports and, thence, increase farm profits,
* Higher price supports result in over production, and
* Lower price supports, cause lower production, and bring supply in balance with demand.

"There is no credible analytical or historical evidence to prove any of these myths to be true," explained Dittrich. "On the other hand, there is hard analytical and historical evidence to prove they are not true. The ACGA, along with several well known agricultural economists, upon review of concise, summarized history of important and interconnected statistics affecting U.S. crop farmers extending back to 1975, have proved, without a doubt, that all three of these myths are false."

Clearly, farmers at every opportunity need to denounce such myths and learn to stop offering such blatant corporate patronizing observations as the one made recently by an Illinois rancher, who in commenting on the news that McDonald's was importing and test marketing cheap Australian and New Zealand beef in their southeastern U.S. restaurants , told the Peoria (Illinois) Journal Star's Steve Tarter that while he regretted McDonald's decision he felt the impact would be minimal with import quotas remaining in force. "At first blush, it pulls at your heart strings. I'd like to see McDonald's keep using domestic product but the important thing is maintaining a set quantity of imported beef," he said.

Thus, as we consider the current plight today of not only agriculture, but of our country, and as we examine the articles below, Pogo's declaration becomes indeed manifestly clear, "we have seen the enemy and it is us."


WENDELL BERRY, THE PROGRESSIVE, APRIL 2002: On June 21, 2001, Richard Lewontin, a respected Harvard scientist, published in The New York Review of Books an article on genetic engineering and the controversy about it. In the latter part of his article, Lewontin turns away from his announced premise of scientific objectivity to attack, in a markedly personal way, the critics of industrial agriculture and biotechnology who are trying to defend small farmers against exploitation by global agribusiness.

He criticizes Vandana Shiva, the Indian scientist and defender of the traditional agricultures of the Third World, for her appeal to "religious morality," and calls her a "cheerleader." He speaks of some of her allies as "a bunch of Luddites," and he says that all such people are under the influence "of a false nostalgia for an idyllic life never experienced." He says that present efforts to save "the independent family farmer . . . are
a hundred years too late, and GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are the wrong target." One would have thought, Lewontin says wearily, that "industrial capitalism . . . has become so much the basis of European and American life that any truly popular new romantic movement against it would be inconceivable."

Lewontin is a smart man, but I don't think he understands how conventional, how utterly trite and thoughtless, is his reaction to Shiva and other advocates of agricultural practices that are biologically sound and economically just. Apologists for industrialism seldom feel any need to notice their agrarian critics, but when a little dog snaps at the heels of a big dog long enough, now and again the big dog will have to condescend.

On such occasions, the big dog always says what Lewontin has said in his article: You are a bunch of Luddites; you are a bunch of romantics motivated by nostalgia for a past that never existed; it is too late; there is no escape. The best-loved proposition is the last: Whatever happens is inevitable; it all has been determined by economics and technology. This is not scientific objectivity or science or scholarship. It is the luxury politics of an academic islander.

The problem for Lewontin and others like him is that the faith in industrial agriculture as an eternal pillar of human society is getting harder to maintain, not because of the attacks of its opponents but because of the increasingly manifest failures of industrial agriculture itself: massive soil erosion, soil degradation, pollution by toxic chemicals, pollution by animal factory wastes, depletion of aquifers, runaway subsidies, the spread of pests and diseases by the long-distance transportation of food, mad cow disease, indifferent cruelty to animals, the many human sufferings associated with agricultural depression, exploitation of "cheap" labor, the abuse of migrant workers. And now, after the catastrophes of September 11, the media have begun to notice what critics of industrial capitalism have always known: The corporate food supply is highly vulnerable to acts of biological warfare.

That these problems exist and are serious is indisputable. So why are they so little noticed by politicians of influence, by people in the media, by university scientists and intellectuals? An increasing number of people alerted to the problems will answer immediately: Because far too many of those people are far too dependent on agribusiness contributions, advertising, and grants. That, I think, is true but another reason that
needs to be considered is modern society's widespread prejudice against country people. This prejudice is not easy to explain, in view of modern society's continuing dependence upon rural sustenance, but its existence also is indisputable.

Lewontin's condescension to country people and their problems is not an aberration either in our society or in The New York Review of Books. On June 29, 2000, that magazine published this sentence: "At worst, [Rebecca West] had a mind that was closed and cold, like a small town lawyer's, prizing facts but estranged from imaginative truth." And on December 20, 2001, it published this: "The Gridiron dinner, as the affair is known, drags on for about five hours, enlivened mainly by the speeches of the politicians, whose ghostwriters in recent years have consistently outdone the journalists in the sharpness and grace of their wit (leaving journalists from the provinces with a strong impulse to follow the groundhogs back into their holes)."

It is possible to imagine that some readers will ascribe my indignation at those sentences to the paranoia of an advocate for the losing side. But I would ask those readers to imagine a reputable journal nowadays that would attribute closed, cold minds to Jewish lawyers, or speak of black journalists wanting to follow the groundhogs into their holes. This, it seems to me, would pretty effectively dissipate the ha-ha.

Disparagements of farmers, of small towns, of anything identifiable as "provincial" can be found everywhere: in comic strips, TV shows, newspaper editorials, literary magazines, and so on. A few years ago, The New Republic affirmed the necessity of the decline of family farms in a cover article entitled "The Idiocy of Rural Life." And I remember a Kentucky high school basketball cheer that instructed the opposing team:
"Go back, go back, go back to the woods.
Your coach is a farmer and your team's no good."

I believe it is a fact, proven by their rapidly diminishing numbers and economic power, that the world's small farmers and other "provincial" people have about the same status now as enemy civilians in wartime. They are the objects of small, "humane" consideration, but if they are damaged or destroyed "collaterally," then "we very much regret it," but they were in the way --- and, by implication, not quite as human as "we" are.

The industrial and corporate powers, abetted and excused by their many dependents in government and the universities, are perpetrating a sort of economic genocide --- less bloody than military genocide, to be sure, but just as arrogant, foolish, and ruthless, and perhaps more effective in ridding the world of a kind of human life. The small farmers and the people of small towns are understood as occupying the bottom step of the economic stairway and deservedly falling from it because they are rural, which is to say not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, which is to say socially, intellectually, and culturally inferior to "us."

Am I trying to argue that all small farmers are superior or that they are all good farmers or that they live the "idyllic life"? I certainly am not. And that is my point. The sentimental stereotype is just as damaging as the negative one. The image of the farmer as the salt of the earth, independent son of the soil, and child of nature is a sort of lantern slide projected over the image of the farmer as simpleton, hick, or redneck. Both images serve to obliterate any concept of farming as an ancient, useful, honorable vocation, requiring admirable intelligence and skill, a complex local culture, great patience and endurance, and moral responsibilities of the gravest kind.

I am not trying to attribute any virtues or characteristics to farmers or rural people as a category. I am only saying what black people, Jews, and others have said many times before: These stereotypes don't fit. They don't work. Of course, some small town lawyers have minds that are "closed and cold," but some, too, have minds that are open and warm.

And some "provincial" journalists may be comparable to groundhogs, I suppose, though I know of none to whom that simile exactly applies, but some too are brilliant and brave and eminently useful. I am thinking, for example, of Tom and Pat Gish, publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, who for many decades have opposed the coal companies whenever necessary and have unflinchingly suffered the penalties, including arson.

Do I think the Gishes would be intimidated by the frivolous wit of ghostwriters at the Gridiron dinner? I do not. I have been attentive all my life to the doings of small town lawyers and "provincial" journalists, and I could name several of both sorts who have not been admirable, but I could name several also who have been heroes among those who wish to be just. I can say, too, that, having lived both in great metropolitan centers of culture and in a small farming community, I have seen few things dumber and tackier --- or more provincial --- than this half-scared urban contempt for "provinciality."

The stereotype of the farmer as rustic simpleton or uncouth redneck is, like most stereotypes, easily refuted: All you have to do is compare it with a number of real people. But the stereotype of the small farmer as obsolete human clinging to an obsolete kind of life, though equally false, is harder to deal with because it comes from a more complicated prejudice, entrenched in superstition and a kind of insanity.

The prejudice begins in the idea that work is bad, and that manual work outdoors is the worst work of all. The superstition is that since all work is bad, all "labor-saving" is good. The insanity is to rationalize the industrial pillage of the natural world and to heap scorn upon the land-using cultures on which human society depends for its life. The industrialization of agriculture has replaced working people with machines and chemicals.

The people thus replaced have, supposedly, gone into the "better" work of offices or factories. But in all the enterprises of the industrial economy, as in industrial war, we finally reach the end of the desk jobs, the indoor work, the glamour of forcing nature to submission by push-buttons and levers, and we come to the unsheltered use of the body. Somebody, finally, must lift the garbage can, stop the leaks in the roof, fix the broken machinery, walk in the mud and the snow, build and mend the pasture fences, help the calving cow.

Now, in the United States, the despised work of agriculture is done by the still-surviving and always struggling small farmers, and by many Mexican and Central American migrant laborers who live and work a half step, if that, above slavery. The work of the farmland, in other words, is now accomplished by two kinds of oppression, and most people do not notice, or if they notice they do not care. If they are invited to care, they are likely to excuse themselves by answers long available in the "public consciousness."

Farmers are better off when they lose their farms. They are improved by being freed of the "mind-numbing work" of farming. Mexican migrant field hands, like Third World workers in our sweatshops, are being improved by our low regard and low wages. And besides, however objectionable from the standpoint of "nostalgia," the dispossession of farmers and their replacement by machines, chemicals, and oppressed migrants is "inevitable," and it is "too late" for correction.

Such talk, it seems to me, descends pretty directly from the old pro-slavery rhetoric: Slavery was an improvement over "savagery," the slaves were happy in their promotion, slavery was sanctioned by God. The moral difference is not impressive.

But the prejudice against rural people is not merely an offense against justice and common decency. It also obscures or distorts perception of issues and problems of the greatest practical urgency. The unacknowledged question beneath the dismissal of the agrarian small farmers is this: What is the best way to farm --- not anywhere or everywhere, but in every one of the Earth's fragile localities? What is the best way to farm this farm? In this ecosystem? For this farmer? For this community? For these consumers? For the next seven generations? In a time of terrorism? To answer those questions, we will have to go beyond our preconceptions about farmers and other "provincial" people.

And we will have to give up a significant amount of scientific objectivity, too. That is because the standards required to measure the qualities of farming are not just scientific or economic or social or cultural, but all of those, employed all together. This line of questioning finally must encounter such issues as preference, taste, and appearance. What kind of farming and what kind of food do you like? How should a good steak or tomato taste? What does a good farm or good crop look like? Is this farm landscape healthful enough? Is it beautiful enough? Are health and beauty, as applied to landscapes, synonymous?

With such questions, we leave objective science and all other specialized disciplines behind, and we come to something like an undepartmented criticism or connoisseurship that is at once communal and personal. Even though we obviously must answer our questions about farming with all the intellectual power we have, we must not fail to answer them also with affection. I mean the complex, never-completed affection for our land and our neighbors that is true patriotism.


EDITORIAL, THE WASHINGTON POST: The ethanol lobby is normally content to fleece taxpayers in two ways. First, it promotes public payments to those who grow the corn from which ethanol is made: Right now the House and Senate are cooking up a terrible farm bill that would lock in ten more years of subsidies. Second, the lobby has used the tax system to penalize gasoline that is not one-tenth made up of ethanol: Motorists who fill their cars with ethanol-free gas pay around five cents extra per gallon.

Some might reckon two federal favors enough, but the ethanol folks think bigger than that. A provision recently inserted into the Senate energy bill by Sen. Tom Daschle, the majority leader, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the energy committee chairman, would mandate a big jump in ethanol use and give ethanol producers protection against environmental liability.

This outrage is disguised in reasonable garb: It is part of an effort to promote renewable sources of energy. But ethanol, though made from corn, can only loosely be thought of as renewable, since making it consumes nearly as much non-renewable oil as the ethanol replaces.

Moreover, ethanol's environmental benefits are debated: Including it in gasoline reduces carbon monoxide emissions but can increase smog. In any case, a sane policy on renewables should give promising alternative energy sources a government boost, but it shouldn't pour billions in taxpayers' cash into products that will never be remotely viable. Remember, ethanol already gets government help: Since 1996, crop subsidies alone have been worth nearly $30 billion to the industry. Increasing this help would be going too far, even if ethanol's environmental merits were more certain.

Both ethanol's drawbacks are reflected in the Senate's legislation. The bill creates a "safe harbor," protecting industry from suits arising out of defective additives in gasoline --- hardly a sign of confidence in ethanol's environmental merits. It also mandates increased ethanol consumption -- again, hardly a sign that ethanol expects to gain market share on its own --- requiring that gasoline refiners step up their use of ethanol from the current level of around 1.7 billion gallons a year to five billion gallons by 2012. This mandated tripling of consumption might cause shortages and therefore price spikes, especially since the ethanol market is dominated by three producers, which could find ways to orchestrate scarcity and pocket windfall profits. The biggest producer is Archer Daniels Midland, which in 1996 pleaded guilty to a charge of price-fixing and was fined $100 million.

The four Democratic senators from California and New York are calling this ethanol provision what it is: a scheme to funnel money to agribusiness and corn states at the expense of the rest of the country. One amendment to limit the ethanol mandate was rebuffed last Thursday, but there may be another chance today. The Senate should back the effort to remove the ethanol provision from the energy bill, and Sen. Daschle should not resist, despite his farm-state loyalties. Democrats have been trying to score points
against the Bush administration by demonstrating the link between corporate lobbyists and the White House energy policy. If the Senate's Democratic leaders now use the energy bill to funnel money to Archer Daniels Midland and its ilk, they'll look like hypocrites.


KIT R. ROANE, U.S NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Just off California Route 1, on a rise above the Pacific Ocean, Jim Cochran and Juan Barranco amble through rows of organic strawberries, their rough hands plucking the ripe fruit, their eyes scouring the leaves for signs of decay. The two men have been working together for 15 years, and neither would have it any other way.

"I've always felt that labor issues were just as important as environmental and food safety issues," says Cochran, who gives Barranco and other workers on his California farm a union wage, a pension, and medical benefits. "What's the point of growing `clean' product when the people who perform the labor are being forced to live in terrible conditions?"

Consumers, who pay up to 50% more for organic fruits and vegetables, largely agree. Their perceptions are fed by an $8 billion-a-year industry that increasingly touts the organic label as a lifestyle that transcends mere food. Organic Style, a 500,000-circulation magazine, touts "socially responsible" investing; Horizon Organic, a Boulder, Colorado-based dairy, tells consumers it treats its cows with "respect and dignity," and Whole Foods Market, one of the nation's largest organic retailers, supports organic agriculture as the best method for "protecting the environment and the farmworkers."

The assumption of many who buy organics is that growers treat their workers with as much care as they do their tender shoots and berries. In fact, Cochran's holistic approach to organic farming may be more the exception than the rule. Although organic growers, pickers, and packagers are spared the exposure to toxic pesticides they would endure
on regular farms, labor inspection reports show that they often toil in dangerous, unsanitary conditions for wages that sometimes don't approach the legal minimum. "Just because you're buying organic doesn't mean the labor practices are any better at all," says former legal aid attorney Gary Restaino.

Sporadic work. It is difficult to track labor practices on organic farms, because no federal agency separates violations by type of farm and many organic producers also grow conventional crops on the same property. But Hilario Rivera's case may be typical, state labor inspectors and farm advocates say. The 41-year-old was recruited by a contractor for the Torres Labor Camp to pick fruit for Willamette River Organics, one of Oregon's biggest organic farms. At the camp, Rivera says, he was forced to buy his work tools and pay $4 a day for a bunk. Yet he was given only two hours of work on some days and none on others.

When he did work, Rivera says, the camp supervisor threatened to fire anyone who asked for a break and cheated workers by undercounting bushels. He is among 34 workers suing the camp and Willamette River Organics for alleged violations of minimum wage laws.

Willamette, which settled a similar lawsuit in 1997, denies Rivera's claims and the charges in the lawsuit. "I give these men jobs, but people think that because you have an organic field that the workers should all be sitting around in lounge chairs," says Greg Pile, vice president of Willamette River Organics.

Farmworkers say their demands are far more basic. At a sprawling vineyard in Arizona, a state Labor Department memo cited a host of "credible" allegations of filthy living conditions, children under the age of 14 being employed, and supervisors threatening to shoot workers who complained. The five-page memo was provided to U.S. News.

Organic farmers counter that most growers are following the law and doing the best they can in a highly competitive market. While consumers may pay a high retail markup for organic food, the big distributors and supermarket chains pay little more to farmers than what it costs to produce it. And the farmers say that what little profit they make is threatened by cheap overseas producers governed by few labor regulations. Most important, they note that federal guidelines define organic food simply as food not grown with pesticides; the guidelines say nothing substantive about labor.

It is precisely because organic farms do not use pesticides that some labor problems arise. Organic crops must be weeded far more often than crops treated with chemicals, and after California banned short-handled hoes as dangerous to workers' backs, some organic farmers sent laborers out with no tools at all, forcing them to hunch over for hours in the baking sun. Long hoes would allow workers to stand upright, but some farmers believe these tools can damage crops.

Laws' flaws. The laws that do exist are often little protection. Inspections are infrequent at conventional farms absent a formal complaint, and they are rarer still if a farm does not use pesticides. The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration has only 75 compliance officers to conduct safety and health inspections of all of the approximately 85,000 businesses in the state. Last year, the California OSHA inspected only 1,130, or about 1.3 percent, of the state's more than 87,500 agricultural establishments. These generally resulted from a complaint or accident.

Enrique D'az Lupiżn, who supports a family of three on $6.50 an hour, is one worker who knows that inspections after an accident are too late. D'az Lupiżn was a picker at the 120-acre Pictsweet Mushroom Farm in Salem, Ore., where workers say some still earn minimum wage after 25 years. The farm, which is owned by Louisville-based United Foods, was cited for 13 OSHA health and safety violations last year after a forklift accident severed D'az Lupiżn's arm. D'az Lupiżn said the company offered to pay him $2,500 for his injury, but he rejected it and filed a workers' compensation claim. United Foods, which had $163 million in sales in 2000, has said it plans to close or sell the farm and will not pay workers severance. Calls to the company were not returned.

A few organic farmers, including Cochran, are pushing the organizations that certify organic farms to go beyond the federal guidelines and adopt a labor standard that would assure customers their products are produced in an ethical way. And one of the country's largest organic processors and distributors, Cascadian Farm, recently amended many of its contracts to call for "fair and reasonable" treatment of workers. But there is little support for labor standards elsewhere.

A spokesperson for Whole Food Markets said that the definition of organic had nothing to do with labor issues. And most organic farmers remain unlikely to push the issue when retailers can just as easily buy cheaper overseas. "Right now most of the farmers aren't getting minimum wage either, because it's pretty lousy out there," says Brian Leahy, head of California Certified Organic Farmers. "It's needed, but it's more than the [organic] movement can handle now."


ROBERT PEAR, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Rushed through both houses of     Congress last fall in response to the threat of bioterrorism, legislation to improve food safety has stalled on Capitol Hill because of resistance from the food industry.

The bill, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, was written by senior members of both parties, after suggestions from the White House and the Food and Drug Administration. But like many other initiatives begun after the September 11 attacks, it appears to have lost its urgency.

The legislation would increase inspections of imported foods require importers to give notice of shipments require food manufacturers and processors to register with the government and authorize the food and drug agency to detain food products without a court order.

It would also allow federal agents to inspect company records that might disclose the source of tainted foods.

The changes would be the most significant expansion of federal authority over the food industry in more than six decades. They are mired in a House-Senate conference committee, an important but largely secret part of the legislative process, where lawmakers try to work out their differences.

The National Food Processors Association, representing big companies like Kraft, H. J. Heinz and ConAgra, said it was not convinced that a new law was needed. The government, it said, already has "vast legal authority  and numerous enforcement tools" to ensure food safety.

Lawyers for the Grocery Manufacturers of America have drafted amendments to the bill that would reduce the number of companies required to register with the government and reduce the penalties for violations.

The Food Marketing Institute, which represents thousands of grocery stores run by companies like Safeway, Kroger and Wal-Mart, is lobbying to exempt its members from many of the requirements. The Society of the Plastics Industry is lobbying to minimize the burden on its members, who import and manufacture food-packaging materials.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, a leading advocate of food safety legislation, said: "Many of the food trade associations are too embarrassed to oppose this bill publicly. They wait until the conference committee meets late at night or work through Congressional staff members to oppose sensible and meaningful safety provisions."

For years, the Food and Drug Administration and outside experts, including the National Academy of Sciences, have said Congress should do more to ensure food is safe. Food regulation is now a patchwork system that evolved over the last century.

Now, with legislation in Congress, Michael D. Gill, vice president of the American Frozen Food Institute, said, "The industry wants a narrow focus on terrorism, rather than broad new authority for the government."

Supporters of the legislation said weaknesses in the current system that allowed many outbreaks of disease  also left the food supply vulnerable to contamination by terrorists.

The Public Health Service estimates that foodborne diseases cause 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.

The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said it had "very real doubts" about whether officials could detect and respond promptly to bioterrorism, because authority was fragmented among a  dozen agencies.

Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, and the food and drug agency, which is part of his department, requested the authority to inspect company records to help find the source of tainted  foods. The authors of the Senate bill, Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, and Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said the authority was crucial. But in a letter to Congress, the National Food Processors Association said it strongly opposed the Bush administration proposal because it went far beyond what was needed to deal with bioterrorism.

Under the Senate bill, the government could set standards for maintaining records and federal agents could examine them to determine if food had been adulterated or misbranded in a way that presented "a threat of serious adverse health consequences or death."

Susan M. Stout, vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said the language of the legislation was "extremely broad, very open-ended and not very specific." Food companies said they also feared that federal agents would demand access to consumer complaint files and trade secrets.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group, said, "Congress let industry set the parameters of the current debate, and the industry is trying to keep F.D.A. as weak as possible." Lobbyists for the food industry said the bill was a vehicle for a huge expansion in federal power.

John W. Bode, who was an assistant secretary of agriculture in the Reagan administration and now lobbies for the National Food Processors Association, said the food safety provisions had very little relation to  bioterrorism. "The events of September 11 are being used to justify a whole new regime of food regulation," he said.


GEORGE MONBLOT, THE MANCHESTER GUARDIAN: On Sunday [April 21], the U.S. government will launch an international coup. It has been planned for a month. It will be executed quietly, and most of us won't know what is happening until it's too late. It is seeking to overthrow 60 years of multilateralism in favour of a global regime built on force.

The coup begins with its attempt, in five days' time, to unseat the man in charge of ridding the world of chemical weapons. If it succeeds, this will be the first time that the head of a multilateral agency will have been deposed in this manner. Every other international body will then become vulnerable to attack. The coup will also shut down the peaceful options for dealing with the chemical weapons Iraq may possess, helping to ensure that war then becomes the only means of destroying them.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) enforces the chemical weapons convention. It inspects labs and factories and arsenals and oversees the destruction of the weapons they contain. Its director-general is a workaholic Brazilian diplomat called Jose Bustani. He has, arguably, done more in the past five years to promote world peace than anyone else on earth. His inspectors have overseen the destruction of two million chemical weapons and two-thirds of the world's chemical weapon facilities. He has so successfully cajoled reluctant nations that the number of signatories to the convention has risen from 87 to 145 in the past five years:the fastest growth rate of any multilateral body in recent times.

In May 2000, as a tribute to his extraordinary record, Bustani was re-elected unanimously by the member states for a second five-year term, even though he had yet to complete his first one. Last year Colin Powell wrote to him to thank him for his "very impressive" work. But now everything has changed. The man celebrated for his achievements has been denounced as an enemy of the people.

In January, with no prior warning or explanation, the U.S. state department asked the Brazilian government to recall him, on the grounds that it did not like his "management style." This request directly contravenes the chemical weapons convention, which states "the director-general . . . .shall not seek or receive instructions from any government". Brazil refused. In March the U.S. government accused Bustani of "financial mismanagement," "demoralisation" of his staff, "bias" and "ill-considered initiatives". It warned that if he wanted to avoid damage to his reputation, he must resign.

Again, the U.S. was trampling the convention, which insists that member states shall "not seek to influence" the staff. He refused to go. On March 19 the U.S. proposed a vote of no confidence in Bustani. It lost. So it then did something unprecedented in the history of multi lateral diplomacy. It called a "special session" of the member states to oust him. The session begins on Sunday. And this time the U.S. is likely to get what it wants.

Since losing the vote last month, the United States, which is supposed to be the organisation's biggest donor, has been twisting the arms of weaker nations, refusing to pay its dues unless they support it, with the result that the OPCW could go under. Last week Bustani told me, "the Europeans are so afraid that the U.S. will abandon the convention that they are prepared to sacrifice my post to keep it on board." His last hope is that the United Kingdom, whose record of support for the organisation has so far been exemplary, will make a stand. The meeting on Sunday will present Tony Blair's government with one of the clearest choices it has yet faced between multilateralism and the "special relationship."

The U.S. has not sought to substantiate the charges it has made against Bustani. The OPCW is certainly suffering from a financial crisis, but that is largely because the U.S. unilaterally capped its budget and then failed to pay what it owed. The organisation's accounts have just been audited and found to be perfectly sound. Staff morale is higher than any organisation as underfunded as the OPCW could reasonably expect. Bustani's real crimes are contained in the last two charges, of "bias" and "ill-considered initiatives."

The charge of bias arises precisely because the OPCW is not biased. It has sought to examine facilities in the United States with the same rigour with which it examines facilities anywhere else. But, just like Iraq, the U.S. has refused to accept weapons inspectors from countries it regards as hostile to its interests, and has told those who have been allowed in which parts of a site they may and may not inspect. It has also passed special legislation permitting the president to block unannounced inspections, and
banning inspectors from removing samples of its chemicals.

"Ill-considered initiatives" is code for the attempts Bustani has made, in line with his mandate, to persuade Saddam Hussein to sign the chemical weapons convention. If Iraq agrees, it will then be subject to the same inspections --- both routine and unannounced --- as any other member state (with the exception, of course, of the United States). Bustani has so far been unsuccessful, but only because, he believes, he has not yet received the backing of the UN security council, with the result that Saddam knows he would have little to gain from signing.

Bustani has suggested that if the security council were to support the OPCW's bid to persuade Iraq to sign, this would provide the U.S. with an alternative to war. It is hard to see why Saddam Hussein would accept weapons inspectors from Unmovic --- the organisation backed by the security council --- after its predecessor, Unscom, was found to be stuffed with spies planted by the U.S. government. It is much easier to see why he might accept inspectors from an organization which has remained scrupulously even-handed. Indeed, when Unscom was thrown out of Iraq in 1998, the OPCW was allowed in to complete the destruction of the weapons it had found. Bustani has to go because he has proposed the solution to a problem the U.S. does not want solved.

"What the Americans are doing," Bustani says, "is a coup d'etat. They are using brute force to amend the convention and unseat the director-general."

As the chemical weapons convention has no provisions permitting these measures, the US is simply ripping up the rules. If it wins, then the OPCW, like Unscom, will be fatally compromised. Success for the United States on Sunday would threaten the independence of every multilateral body.

This is, then, one of those rare occasions on which our government could make a massive difference to the way the world is run. It could choose to support its closest ally, wrecking multilateralism and shutting down the alternatives to war. Or it could defy the United States in defence of world peace and international law. It will take that principled stand only if we, the people from whom it draws its power, make so much noise that it must
listen. We have five days in which to stop the US from bullying its way to war.


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