EXAMINER                            Issue # 59      December 18, 1999

Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness From a Public Interest Perspective

A.V. Krebs


As most folks prepare to celebrate the Christmas season and welcome a new century and millennium,  food --- literally history's "staff of life,"  --- will undoubtedly have a prominent and much revered place in all the festivities surrounding these holidays . Each time we break bread and slake our thirst, however, there will be in our presence uninvited guests, guests whose lack of visibility is and has been in direct proportion to their continuing role in providing us with the seemingly infinite cornucopia of food we have come to so take for granted.

These uninvited and invisible "guests" are the men, women, children and families who plant, grow, nurture and harvest our food --- family farmers, still the most economic, socially and environmentally efficient producers of food on the planet, and farmworkers, the slaves that we rent.

Yet, despite the vital role these people play in our everyday lives, they have become invisible to mainstream society; they have become literally the proverbial canary that our so-called free enterprise system has sent into the pits to alert us to pending economic doom, just as mining companies at one time used the canary to ferret out dangerous and disastrous collections of gases in their mines.

The human toll, however, of such tactics is and continues to be staggering.

In its process of substituting capital for efficiency and technology for labor, corporate agribusiness has turned family farmers not only in the U.S., but throughout the world, into technological "junkies," endangering their own and their families' health and safety, converting "stewards"  of the land into "miners" of the land, creating a class of corporate "welfare cheats" living off taxpayers, and basing farm survival not on earned income but on borrowed capital and so-called "rural development."
Likewise, under the guise of "freedom of choice" and "Freedom to Farm" corporate agribusiness continues to seek to both standardize our food supply through relegating it to assembly-line  "manufacturing"  and moving its production from the fields to the "life science" corporate laboratories,  while at the same time forcing consumers to pay higher and higher quantitative and qualitative costs for their daily bread.

By deifying "cost benefit analysis"  at the expense of the "common good"  corporate agribusiness has managed to annul the positive dimensions of the family farm system and eliminate its economic and environmental advantages, particularly as they relate to building genuine communities.

As social anthropologists Patricia L. Allen and Carolyn E. Sachs point out, any system built upon a foundation of structural inequities "is ultimately unsustainable in the sense that it will result in increasing conflict and struggle along the lines of class, gender, and ethnicity."  Corporate agribusiness has become just such a system.

Thus, as we enter the twilight of the 20th century, our  family farm system of agriculture is now facing its dark night of the soul.

Consequently, our family farm system of agriculture now stands on the threshold of eradication. In the U.S., for example, throughout the 1980's an ever-mounting numbers of farm bankruptcies, foreclosures, and forced evictions reaped a grim "human harvest" of suicides, alcoholism, divorce, family violence, personal stress, and loss of community.

Continuing now into the late-1990's the very economic and social fabric of rural America is being ripped asunder.  Meanwhile, the control of our food supply has been seized by corporate entities whose purpose is not to feed people, or provide jobs, or husband the land, but simply to increase their cash flow and reduce their transactional costs in order to placate their excess-profit-obsessed institutional investors.


Equally devastating, however, to family farmers is that not only have they become invisible to the general public, but that those allies within the consumer, environmental and labor movement that should be in solidarity with their cause tend to also ignore them, if not, in some cases see them more as an enemy than a brother or sister.

In a devastating and most perceptive interview appearing in the December, 1999 issue of THE SUN, a small literary magazine published in North Carolina,
Joel Dyer, author of "Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City Is Only the Beginning" (Westview Press), discusses at length this tragic splintering.

In addressing the accusation that farmers are despoilers of the environment Dyer points out: "Think how many `I send ten dollars to the Nature Conservancy' pseudoenvironmentalists" there are. "They want to do a good thing for the environment without ever leaving their easy chairs. But how many thousands of rural people have they put out of work with impractical environmental legislation dreamed up by urban activists who lack practical knowledge of rural life? Suburban-chic environmentalism is a big source of rage in the hinterland, because it has imposed a certain standard of behavior to which many rural people don't want to be held."

Several years ago a Boonesville, Iowa couple sent to the Des Moines Register a letter in which they confessed: " . . . we agree that it would be wonderful not to have to employ pesticides, chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Anyone who has seen and smelled these products (which are foul smelling and toxic to the skin) would undoubtedly [agree] that they can't help our bodies or the environment. However, while raising our family and paying for a farm and equipment whose costs are exorbitant, our goal must be to make as much profit per acre as possible . . . Try telling your banker or land lord that you have not used any of these methods and that the yields will be cut appreciably because you want to save the environment. Chances are you won't be farming next year."

"By the way," Dyer adds, "most small family farmers are not resistant to environmentalism: they pollute because, economically, they have to in order to stay on their land. They're angry because, quite often, environmental regulations are the last nail in the coffin of their way of life. Contrast this to large corporate farms, which pollute because it allows them to make more money."

Much has been made in the days after the "Battle of Seattle" of the new found relationship in common cause between labor and environmentalists as exhibited on Seattle's streets with environmentalist in sea turtle costumes and rank-and-file labor marching together in protesting the policies of the World Trade Organization. Yet there has been little if any mention, in both the main stream media nor the so-called alternative media that there were also hundreds of "non-costumed," but flesh-and-blood family farmers marching in that protest parade, invisible as they may have been to both medias and some of their fellow marchers.

It is that kind of looking past their presence in our daily lives that has so angered many of those people who live and work in rural America.


As Dyer sums it up so well: "We on the left have put on blinders to the point where we aren't willing to reach out to middle-aged white men. Middle-aged white men are suppose to be the root of all evil! And I don't disagree with that notion in many ways: it's absolutely true that middle-aged white men are the root of most evil, because they occupy the positions of power.

"But there are 15 million poor middle-aged white men who have more in common with urban blacks and Hispanics than they do with the average CEO. So there's no help from the left because these rural men are vilified as `rednecks' and `Bubbas.' Besides, there are too many problems for people on the left to worry about as it is -- the last thing they need to take on is underprivileged white men. Can you imagine how hard it would be to raise money from wealthy liberals to help poor white males?

". . . The left determines who is downtrodden and often that determination is based on just as shallow a measure as those the right uses to determine who is worthy . . .  The left needs to realize that  low-income whites, including farmers and others in rural America, are not and have never been the enemy," he adds.

Dyer's point is well taken. It is much easier for urban activists to come forth with "cutting edge" issues like the genetic engineering of crops and attract funding as was evidenced by a December 14, 1999 Wall Street Journal article ("Raising the Anti: For Those Fighting Biotech Crops, Santa Came Early") than to assist grassroots farm organizations that are having to deal with the day-to-day consequences of corporate agribusiness's relentless efforts to destroy family farm agriculture.

Yet, even in their zeal to warn the public of the very real dangers of the genetic engineering of our food and while much of their attention has been given to the labeling issue, testing and the exporting of genetically engineered crops, little attention has been paid by these activists to the first "victims" of genetic engineering --- the nation's family farmers and their economic dilemma of what to plant and what not to plant, decisions that leave them at the pricing mercy of such commodity giants as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) --- "Supermarkup to the World."

By way of illustration, a recently filed anti-trust law suit against Monsanto by six farmers (See Issue #60) while noted in the press, nevertheless highlighted that the suit was being promoted by, in the words of the Wall Street Journal "a group of class-action lawyers,"  and "antibiotechnology activist Jeremy Rifkin" and oh yes "supported by a coalition of populist farm groups long suspicious of corporate control of agriculture" without mentioning that the "coalition" was in fact what the Associated Press choose to characterize in its story of the suit as "the left-leaning" National Family Farm Coalition, which is in fact a membership-based organization comprised of 32 family farm and rural advocacy organizations in 30 states founded in 1986.

The Journal also duly noted that "several of the biggest U.S. farm organizations, including the National Farmers Union, American Soybean Association and American Farm Bureau Federation, said they aren't participating in the suit. `This [lawsuit] doesn't represent mainstream farmers,' said Paul Bertels, director of production at the National Corn Growers Association." Apart from the surprising and unexplained absence of the NFU, one would be hard put to say that the ASA and the AFBF represents "mainstream farmers."
As one views America's and now increasingly the world's "permanent agricultural crisis" one shudders to think how much worse off family farm agriculture would be today if it wasn't for the almost solitary and dogged support many grassroots farm organizations throughout rural America have received over nearly two decades from the unabashed support of Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and friends and their FarmAid organization.


In Dyer's correct analysis he observes that "rural Americans are a small enough percentage of the nation's population now that they can't effect our democracy the way they once could . . . This means people in the cities are now capable of dictating, through the government, how rural Americans must live. And rural Americans are upset by this, because they don't want to change their way of life."

The ability of urban centers to dictate the way people who live outside their boundaries should live is intrinsically part of history's concept of the city.

Speaking to a National Council of Churches conference on the urban/rural land connection in November, 1986 the eminent Protestant theologian Dr. Walter Brueggemann explained how historically society's  minds and hearts have been shaped by the city.

"We begin our analysis by observing that all those who thought they owned the land, who said they owned the land, who chanted liturgies that assured them that they owned the land, they are all the people who lived in the city. The urban power elite imagined that they owned the land and on that presupposition they conducted their politics and their liturgy; and so I submit that this conference which confesses that the land is owned by Yahweh, is a doxology against urban pretensions. The fact of the city is at the center of the land crisis. It was so in ancient Israel and it is so in our farm crisis because the city is not simply a place, the city is a way of thinking about social reality."

He continues,
". . .  the city is a place of monopoly where everything important and valued is gathered and stored and administered and owned. The city exists by the concentration of what is valued in the hands of a few. Indeed, the city exists for the sake of concentration.The concentration of wealth and value is the cause of the city and the city is the result of that concentration. When the city is healthy it exists in a respectful coming and going with the country. But when the city arrives at a pathological self-importance and an imagined self-sufficiency, it fails to respect the country."

Dr. Brueggemann concludes:

"When there is no coming and going, no giving and taking, but only taking, there comes death."

It is this "death" that has created so much rage within rural America. SUN's interviewer Derrick Jensen in opening up the issue concerning corporate control of rural economies recalls that a family farmer once said to him: "Cargill gives me two choices: either I cut my own throat, or they'll do it for me." Dyer responds:

"You've got to love farmers. They go straight to the heart of the problem. And the heart of the problem is that a few corporations have monopolistic economic control of rural America. Without that control --- if for example, we had anything resembling a free market --- the political control wouldn't matter. To gain political control, you have to have economic control."


Addressing the issue of why can't farmers accept the reality of corporate agribusiness controlling their farms and their business and get gainful employment in the cities, Dyer explains:

"Because it's not just the loss of a job --- it's the loss of an entire way of life. Rural America is a different culture. Farmers don't just say, `Damn, these corporations sure are making it hard for me to get by. I guess I'll take that factory job in the city.' They don't want to go to the city; they want to hold on to the life they have. Consequently, they continue to lose money every year while they can't afford to feed their children. Twenty-seven percent of all kids in rural America go to bed hungry every night --- more than in the inner city. Those farmers can't buy food; they can't make loan payments. Their stress level goes up and they start having heart attacks. And some of them --- more that you'd imagine --- kill themselves."

In Nebraska, the state's Farmers Union president John Hansen notes that calls on his office's hot line are ranked on a one to five basis  - - - one being general information and five being life threatening/personal safety issues. A four ranking is high stress. In the last quarter of 1999 Hansen's office has received twice as many calls as the previous quarter and 67% of those calls have been in the four and five categories with some of the four calls being inquiries relative to how  families of the farmer can be assured of receiving insurance money in case of an "accident."

As Dyer elaborates, "five times as many farmers now die of suicide as die from equipment accidents --- which historically, have been the single biggest cause of unnatural death on the farm. And that's not even counting suicides made to look like accidents."

In losing their farms to foreclosure and the extreme level of depression they feel Dyer explains, "I don't even pretend to understand the anxiety they suffer. That's part of the problem of urban-rural relationships: we urbanites can see the despair, but we can't feel it. We can't fully grasp the feeling of `My great-granddad homesteaded this piece of land and fought to keep it. My granddad took it over from him and made it bigger and better. My dad took it over from him and did the same. And now he's given it to me, and I'm going to lose it.'"

And, responding to Jensen's observation that "and not because you're a bad farmer," Dyer adds, "no, because of economics, consolidation, and activities of the federal government.

" . . . it's worse even than a death in the family, because on top of the emotional distress is a thick layer of guilt. You feel as though you murdered that farm, as though you murdered your children's future, your heritage, your connection to God, and your connection to history."

Addressing the question as to the alarming growth of racist and anti-semetic feeling within rural America Dyer points out that "quite often, I've found rural people's racism and hatred for the government to be symptoms of economic stress rather than a simple ideological difference, occasioning Jensen to ask: "Leaving aside the racists for the moment, what is it that most militant farmers want?"

"I don't think they're greedy," Dyer responds. "They want to feed their families, keep their farms, work their land and make a decent living  . . . not a six figure income, but enough to provide food and health care for their kids. If you give rural Americans that, they will be happy, because everything else stems from those basics."

Because rural America for most folks is out of sight, out of mind this human suffering and seething anger might as well be located on another planet, for as Dyer notes: "Now we have generations of people who don't even drive from one city to the next. Their understanding of rural America is that big flat area their plane flies over. And should they wonder what life is like down there, they figure it must be pretty good, because they've seen those TV commercials in which Archer Daniels Midland says its `feeding the world.'"


Speculating on when the public is going to realize and understand that what has been and is happening in rural America may simply be a harbinger for the rest of the country journalist Joel Dyer sees little hope.

"I believe that when the entire country starts to go to hell in a handbasket, you'll see some reforms. But not until then. That's what happened in the Great Depression: Roosevelt wasn't enlightened . . . he was terrified.  . .  Historian Howard Zinn is exactly right when he says the Depression could have brought down the government if the New Deal hadn't been put into place. Well, another New Deal won't happen right now because there are still too many people doing too well from the stock-market boom.

"But when," he adds, "the market collapses and takes with it the money of the schoolteachers and social workers and garbage collectors who've jumped in, tempted by the ungodly profits of the last few years, many more people will be feeling the harsh realities now felt by the poor, minorities and farmers."

In the meantime, however, our nation's family farmers will continue to be ignored, continue to be invisible to the consuming public.

Why should the public be concerned about the growing concentration within corporate agribusiness; it has little to do with them, they would argue. When Americans by 49% to 41% disagree with Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's overwhelming evidence that Microsoft is a monopoly and by 52% to 29%  don't think Microsoft should be broken up should we expect them to care about the Cargills and Smithfield Foods, names to most of the public that are entirely foreign.

As California farmer Victor Davis Hanson sums it up so well in his poignant "Fields Without Dreams" (Free Press, 1996): "The final verdict on the future of the American farm lies no longer with the farmer, much less with the abstract thinker or even the politician, but rather with the American people themselves--and they have now passed judgment. They no longer care where or how they get their food, as long as it is firm, fresh and cheap. They have no interest in preventing the urbanization of their farmland as long as parks, Little League fields and an occasional bike lane are left amid the concrete, stucco and asphalt.

"They have no need of someone who they are not, who reminds them of their past and not their future. Their romanticism for the farmer is just that, an artificial and quite transient appreciation of his rough-cut visage against the horizon, the stuff of a wine commercial, cigarette ad or impromptu rock concert. Instinctively, most farmers know this. It's the real reason they are mad."

Since the "Battle of Seattle" there has been a lot of heady talk about our entering the "Democracy Century." Typical of such claims can be seen in an essay "How to Stop the WTO"  by Joel Gallob, who writes for the Newport News Times in Newport Oregon, and which was distributed widely to activist groups throughout the U.S.
"The potential alliances are nothing short of stunning. Hippie environmentalists and scientists, organized labor and sovereignty activists, back to the land right-wingers and back to the land organic farmers, human rights groups and industries hurt by an end to protectionist tariffs; liberal Democrats and Oregon anarchists. Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader." Covers just about all the bases, except no mention of family farmers.

Curiously, both in the mainstream media AND the alternative media and in communiques issued by various NGO groups during the WTO meeting in Seattle when any mention of agriculture was introduced it dealt almost exclusively to what was happening to the agricultural agenda within the ministerial  meetings, since agriculture was the purported centerpiece of the negotiations. Little, if any, mention as to the activities of hundreds of farmers outside the meeting was provided, unlike the treatment that was afforded labor and the environmentalists.

One wonders what the media reports might have been like if farmers had released say 100,000 hogs on to the streets of Seattle and brought their tractors along with them.


Much was made of the fact that when, on the eve of his arrival in Seattle, Bill Clinton told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he wanted a proposed WTO working group on trade and labor to develop labor standards that would eventually be enforceable by trade sanctions. That comment, although welcomed by U.S. labor groups, irritated developing nations concerned that they would suffer as a result.

While there is no denying the matter of developing international labor standards is a complicated question and one that deserves careful thought it is also undeniable that Clinton's appeal was more geared to achieving a short-term domestic political gain than addressing reasonable and democratic long-term economic development.

As Ralph Nader so adroitly put it, referring to Clinton and presidential candidate Al Gore's newfound sympathy for the victims of  globalization, "Where were they five years ago when they rammed all this down the throats of Congress in an autocratic, fast-track maneuver?"

As Celia W. Dugger reports in the New York Times,  D. L. Sachdev, secretary of the All
India Trade Union Congress, which represents 2.5 million workers in industrial and service jobs, said he and other union leaders in India maintain that making trade agreements conditional on meeting labor standards could be used to keep out goods from low-wage countries like India, damaging workers and employment in those industries.

"Unfortunately, trade unions in developed countries feel that because of cheap labor and relocation of industries by multinational corporations, their employment prospects are imperiled," Sachdev said.

In Seattle, Dugger reports, the developing countries won vigorous backing from a group of African, Latin American and Asian academics, led by the Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati. "They, as well as a variety of labor and nongovernmental leaders, signed a statement against including labor and environmental issues in trade deals. Their contention was that the labor issues in particular are selectively used against developing countries for the economic gain of the richer nations.

"For example, President Clinton had cited child labor, a problem of developing countries like India, but had made no mention of lax enforcement of laws to protect workers in garment sweatshops or migrant farm workers in the United States."

Setting one's own humane labor standards and allow a nation to create an economic climate for indigenous businesses --- not multinational corporations ---  to process and manufacture their country's own goods while exporting their surplus is an idea expressed by no less than Thomas Jefferson when in a letter to John Jay in 1809 he said:

"Manufacturers, sufficient for our own consumption, of what we raise the raw material (and no more). Commerce sufficient to carry the surplus produce of agriculture, beyond our own consumption, to a market for exchanging it for articles we cannot raise (and no more). These are the true limits of manufactures and commerce. To go beyond them is to increase our dependence on foreign nations, and our liability to war. These three important branches of human industry will then grow together, and be really handmaidens to each other."

But, as Herman Schumacher,  a cattle producer, cattle feeder,livestock auction operator and auctioneer from Herried, South Dakota said so well in a 1998 letter to U.S. Congressman Pat Roberts (Rep.-Kansas): "Unfortunately you and other leaders have made some wrong assumptions. First, we don't need to feed the world. The world needs to be fed. But the U.S. and other global trade policies actually inhibit  the development of vital diversified wealth creating and efficient food systems within, particularly, the developing countries. This paternal policy creates unrest, not world peace, forcing these countries to accept our imports when they either have or should have  the capacity to provide for themselves. Secondly, is there really a demand for U.S. production?"


So as we prepare to celebrate not only a holiday of joy and renewal but the beginning of a new century with much food and drink we must not and should not forget those uninvited, invisible guests who have contributed so much of their lives to our well-being. By ignoring them, by ignoring their needs and desires which are rapidly being eroded as they become corporate agribusiness's "excess human resources" we demean ourselves and the human family.

Likewise, if authentic social/economic/political change is our desired goal, then any organization or alliance that purports to be populist by name or in character must assent to the fact that farmers just as well as labor, consumers and environmentalists have the right to not only assert, but actively pursue the fundamental principle that says a society cannot have true political democracy without genuine economic democracy.

As we move into the 21st century keeping in mind that the past decade marked the centennial of the agrarian populist movement, the time has come to disengage ourselves from the endless fratricidal debates that have existed in the past between and among farmers, farmworkers, labor, consumers and environmentalists.

Rather this new decade should be viewed as that one propitious "democratic moment" in our lifetimes that we begin to seriously put together a progressive populist movement. Not only does our historical tradition suggest such an effort is called for, but as should be noted there exists today:

1) a large rural constituency, currently experiencing the reality of almost total political and economic disenfranchisement;

2) the "partisan poor," a growing number of low income, less educated group of voters, two-thirds of them white and a third black who still require and strongly support domestic assistance programs;

3) disenchanted consumers, increasingly angry over being repeatedly victimized by the corporate state's "transfer economy" and who often find themselves saddled with  the continuing costs of corporate mismanagement, inefficiency and waste;

4) citizens being poorly served by a government regulatory process, originally designed to promote a "consumer sovereign" economy, but as Ralph Nader reminds us has instead "invariably adopted `seller-sovereign' priorities,"  and

5) disillusioned citizen-action groups who see their own worthy social, economic and political agendas  either outright ignored, disregarded, and \or co-opted by their own entrusted, elected representatives in local, state and federal governments who have become so beholden to those corporate interests and the money that such interests feed them.

It is time to be bold in our vision if we are going to be about the task of reviving the agrarian populist spirit of the 1880's and 1890's. We need to both think and act "globally" while at the same time organizing locally. Joe Hill had it right, we need to quit mourning and start organizing.

Rural Americans and family farmers in particular have traditionally associated themselves with the ideals of American democracy as enunciated by Thomas Jefferson and embodied in the rich historical tradition of agrarian populism. They should not and must not be ignored for the leadership they can provide in our nation's continuing struggle for economic and political democracy.


Lastly, no holiday letter worth the time it takes to read it would be complete without some New Year's resolutions and this editor's list is but one. That all people who eat recognize that that daily act has now become a political act. As was expressed by yours truly at the Food and Ag Day rally in Seattle:

"What we eat, where we eat, why we eat tells us whether we want McDomination or community sustainable agriculture, whether we want untested genetically engineered foods or whether we want healthy, nutritious naturally grown food, whether we want family farmers to receive a fair price for what they produce or whether we want to see the merchants of greed get richer and richer."

As individuals we can hopefully begin to achieve some of those desired goals in the year 2000 by:

1. Making the abolishment of the ill-conceived, subsequently disastrous "Freedom to Farm" legislation a top priority in the coming national elections, the benchmark by which we measure whether our elected representatives truly believe in equal economic justice for all or rather they subscribe to the belief that farm legislation should be "of the grain trade, by the grain trade, and for the grain trade."

2. Work for vigorous enforcement of all anti-trust laws, placing a moratorium on all current and possible future mergers within corporate agribusiness until such time as the corporations themselves can demonstrate that such mergers will economically, socially and environmentally benefit the society as a whole.

3. Support all pending family farmer generated legal cases against corporate agribusinesses, including the aforementioned National Family Farm Coalition suit against Monsanto and the price fixing suit [Pickett vs IBP] by St. Francis, Kansas feedlot owner Mike Callicrate and a host of independent cattle producers against IBP, the nation's "number one corporate outlaw."

4. In our purchasing of our own food, buy only locally produced and processed food, preferably that food produced by family farmers and organic farmers in the surrounding community.

5. Support current legislation requiring genetically engineered food to be properly labeled as such (Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act has been assigned a bill number. It is H.R. 3377.)

Such suggestions are but a first step and as we map our strategy towards achieving these goals let us not forget the words of the beloved Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement when she recalled that:

"One day at our Catholic Worker farm, John Filliger, talking of drying up a cow a few months before she was about to calve, said, `the only way to do it with a good cow like this is to milk her out on the ground. She gets so mad at the waste of her milk that she dries right up.' That may be an old wives' tale --- or an old farmers' tale, in this case --- but there is a lesson in it: if we waste what we have, the sources of supply will dry up. Any long range view of the colossal waste of the resources of the earth and human life points to an exhaustion of our economy, not to speak of man himself."

                                                        EDITORS NOTE
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