EXAMINER                                                 Issue # 96        November 17, 2000

Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness From a Public Interest Perspective

A.V. Krebs


On Sunday, Novermber 12, 2000 Pope John Paul II celebrated a solemn Mass with thousands of farmers from around theworld who had come to Rome to observe their Jubilee The Mass was concelebrated by 350 Cardinals, Bishops and priests, with the participation of representatives from various agricultural organizations and UN offices such as the FAO, IFAD and WFP. Here is a translation of the Pope's homily, which was given in Italian.
1. “The Lord keeps faith forever” (Ps 146: 6).  It is precisely in order to sing of this fidelity of the Lord recalled just now in the Responsorial Psalm that you are here for your Jubilee today, dear brothers and sisters. I am therefore delighted with your beautiful witness, which was expressed a few moments ago by Bishop Fernando Charrier, whom I cordially thank. A respectful greeting also goes to the dignitaries who have wished to show their participation as representatives of various States and especially of the United Nations Organizations and Offices for Food and Agriculture.

My thoughts turn next to the directors and members of the National Farmers' Confederation and the other farmers' organizations present here, as well as to the members of the bakers’ federations, of the food and agro-industrial cooperatives and of the Forest Union of Italy. Your presence here in such numbers and variety, dear brothers and sisters, gives us a vivid sense of the unity of the human family and of the universal dimension of our prayer addressed to the one God, Creator of the universe and faithful to man.

You have come to thank God for the fruits of the earth.
2. God's faithfulness! For you, people of the agricultural world, it is a daily experience, constantly repeated in the observation of nature. You know the language of the soil and the seeds, of the grass and the trees, of the fruit and the flowers. In the most varied landscapes, from the harshness of the mountains to the irrigated plains under the most varied skies, this language has its own fascination which you know so well. In this language, you see God's fidelity to what he said on the third day of creation: “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit” (Gn 1: 11). In the movement of nature, which is calm and silent but full of life, the original pleasure of the Creator is still vibrant:  “And God saw that it was a good thing”! (Gn 1: 12).

Yes, the Lord keeps faith for ever. And you, experts in this language of fidelity --- a language that is ancient but ever new --- are naturally people of gratitude. Your prolonged contact with the wonder of the earth's products lets you see them as an inexhaustible gift of divine Providence. This is why your annual day is “thanksgiving day” par excellence. This year it has an even higher spiritual value since it is occurring during the Jubilee which celebrates the 2,000th anniversary of Christ's birth. You have come to give thanks for the fruits of the earth, but first of all to acknowledge him as the Creator and, at the same time, the most beautiful fruit of our earth, the “fruit” of Mary’s womb, the Saviour of humanity and, in a certain sense, of the “cosmos” itself. Indeed, creation, as Paul says, “has been groaning in travail” and cherishes the hope of being set free “from its bondage to decay” (Rom 8: 21-22).

3. The “groaning” of the earth prompts us to think of your work, dear men and women of agriculture, work that is so important and yet not free from discomfort and hardship. The passage we heard from the Book of Kings recalls a typical situation of suffering due to drought. The prophet Elijah, exhausted from hunger and thirst, is both the agent and the beneficiary of a miracle of generosity. It fell to a young widow to rescue him, sharing with him her last handful of flour and the last drops of her oil; her generosity touches God's heart, to the point that the prophet can say:  “The jar of meal shall not be spent, and the cruse of oil shall not fail, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.”

The culture of the farming world has always been marked by a sense of impending risk to the harvest, due to unforeseeable climatic misfortunes. However, in addition to the traditional burdens, there are often others due to human carelessness. Agricultural activity in our era has had to reckon with the consequences of industrialization and the sometimes disorderly development of urban areas, with the phenomenon of air pollution and ecological disruption, with the dumping of toxic waste and deforestation. Christians, while always trusting in the help of Providence, must make responsibile efforts to ensure that the value of the earth is respected and promoted.

Agricultural work should be better and better organized and supported by social measures that fully reward the toil it involves and the truly great usefulness that characterizes it. If the world of the most refined technology is not reconciled with the simple language of nature in a healthy balance, human life will face ever greater risks, of which we are already seeing the first disturbing signs.

The human heart is the first ground to be cultivated

4. Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, be grateful to the Lord, but at the same time be proud of the task that your work assigns to you. Work in such a way that you resist the temptations of a productivity and profit that are   detrimental to the respect for nature. God entrusted the earth to human beings “to till it and keep it” (cf. Gn 2: 15).

When this principle is forgotten and they become the tyrants rather than the custodians of nature, sooner or later the latter will rebel.  But you understand clearly, dear friends, that this principle of order, which applies to agricultural work as well as to every other area of human activity, is rooted in the human heart. The “heart” itself is therefore the first ground to be cultivated. It was not by chance that, when Jesus wanted to explain the work of God's word, he used the parable of the sower as an illuminating example taken from the farming world. God’s word is a seed meant to bear abundant fruit, but unfortunately it often falls on unsuitable ground, where stones or weeds and thorns --- various terms for our sins --- prevent it from taking root and growing (cf. Mt 13: 13-23, par.).

Thus, a Father of the Church gives the following advice precisely to a farmer: “So when you are in the field and are looking at your farm, consider that you too are Christ’s field and devote attention to yourself as you do to your field. The same beauty that you require your peasant to give to your field, give to God in the cultivation of your heart . . . “ (St Paulinus of Nola, Letter 39, 3 to Aper and Amanda).

It is because of this “cultivation of the spirit” that you are here to celebrate the Jubilee today. You present to the Lord, even before your professional efforts, the daily work of purifying your heart:  a demanding task, which we will never succeed in doing on our own. Our strength is Christ, who, as the Letter to the Hebrews just reminded us, “appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9: 26).

5. This sacrifice, offered once and for all on Golgotha, is made real for us every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Here Christ makes himself present with his body and blood to become our food.

How significant it must be for you, men and women of the agricultural world, to contemplate on the altar this miracle which crowns and exalts the very wonders of nature. Is not a miracle worked each day when a seed becomes an ear of corn and so many grains from it ripen to be ground and made into bread? Is not the cluster of grapes that hangs on the branch of the vine one of nature's miracles? All this already mysteriously bears the mark of Christ, since “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1: 3). But greater still is the event of grace in which the Word and the Spirit of God make the bread and wine, “fruit of the earth and work of human hands,” the Body and Blood of the Redeemer. The Jubilee grace that you have come to implore is none other than a superabundance of Eucharistic grace, the power that raises us and heals us from within by grafting us on to Christ.

We must contribute to a culture of solidarity

6. The attitude that we should take towards this grace is suggested to us by the Gospel example of the poor widow who puts her small coins into the treasury but in fact gives more than everyone else, since she is not giving out of her abundance, but is putting in “her whole living” (Mk 12: 44). Thus this unknown woman is following in the footsteps of the widow of Zarephath, who opened her home and her table to Elijah. Both are sustained by their faith in the Lord. Both draw from faith the strength for heroic charity.

They invite us to open our Jubilee celebration to the horizons of love and to see all the poor and needy of this world. What we do for the least of them we will have done for Christ (cf. Mt 25: 40).  And how could we forget that the sphere of agricultural work involves human situations that deeply challenge us?

Entire peoples, who depend primarily on farming in economically less developed regions, live in conditions of poverty. Vast regions have been devastated by frequent natural disasters. And sometimes these misfortunes are accompanied by the consequences of war, which not only claims victims, but sows destruction, depopulates fertile lands and even leaves them overrun with weapons and harmful substances.

7. The Jubilee began in Israel as a great time for reconciliation and the redistribution of goods. To accept this message today certainly cannot mean limiting oneself to a small donation. We must contribute to a culture of
solidarity which, at the political and economic level, both national and international, encourages generous and effective initiatives for the benefit of less fortunate peoples.

Today we want to remember all these brothers and sisters in our prayer, with the intention of expressing our love for them in active solidarity, so that everyone without exception can enjoy the fruits of “mother earth” and live lives worthy of God's children.


On September 12, 2000 Frederick “Fred” Kirschenmann,  an organic crop farmer in Windsor, North Dakota, as the newly appointed director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa delivered the Shivvers Lecture, Iowa Beta Chapter, Gamma Sigma Delta. A longtime proponent of environmentally friendly farming practices, he has served on the boards of numerous national initiatives linked to sustainable agriculture, including the National Organics Standards Board at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He holds a doctorate in historical theology from the University of Chicago, has been a college teacher and administrator, and has written extensively.

I am not a scientist or a technician. I am a farmer and a philosopher. I am aware that in our industrial culture that makes me intellectually suspect and a bit of an oddball as a lecturer at a meeting of an agriculture honor society.

In my defense I want to note that philosophers and farmers have played an
important role in human civilization. Farmers have helped us to stay alive, and philosophers have helped us to learn how to live. Perhaps that is belaboring the obvious. But in our “technopoly” culture we have been led to believe that agriculture need ask only one question: “How much does it  produce?”

Indeed, Paul Thompson at Purdue University argues that farmers in our culture have been taught to subscribe to only one ethic---produce as much as possible regardless of the cost. (Thompson,  1995) And we believe that technology is all we need to achieve our production goals.

And increasingly technological innovation to increase productivity has become the sole research goal of both public and private research institutions. Farmers, consequently, have been driven to become primarily appliers of technology, and philosophers have been relegated to esoteric functions with little to contribute to the public good. In fact anyone who appears to have little to contribute to our global industrial economy ---  the growth of which is increasingly the single goal of our society --- incurs the risk of being considered a vestige of the past (or worse, a “Luddite”). Accordingly, we don't expect much in the way of meaningful intellectual leadership from either our farmers or our philosophers.

Philosophers, however, have the annoying habit of asking questions that the prevailing culture doesn't like to ask. It's what got Socrates into trouble. Having said that, I want to be clear. I'm not offering to drink hemlock tonight and I trust I won't be accused of corrupting the nation's youth, which you will recall was Socrates' crime. But I think it is time to ask some questions of agriculture that aren't being widely discussed today.

I can think of no better place, than this place---here among agriculture's honor students, here in Iowa --- to begin asking these questions. I assume you are our brightest and best, otherwise you would not have been inducted into the coveted Gamma Sigma Delta. And Iowa is the heartland of American agriculture. The questions we ask of agriculture here may begin to shape the questions we ask nationally.

I can also think of no one who is more obliged to begin asking these questions than the Director of the Leopold Center. The Iowa State Legislature created the Leopold Center to be an agent for change --- to be instrumental in the development of a resilient agriculture for the state of Iowa that is consistent with the philosophy of Aldo Leopold. Many of the questions I will be asking us to consider tonight are, in fact, similar in character to some that Leopold asked himself.

Early in his life Leopold was convinced, as most of us are, that science and technology could solve most of our problems --- including those facing conservation. Later he warned that we needed to be wary of “salvation by machine,” (1933) and that without a compelling land ethic that was ecologically grounded, we wouldn't make much progress, long term, toward our ecological, social or our economic goals. (1949)

So I'd like to challenge you tonight to begin thinking with me and my colleagues at the Leopold Center about the questions that confront agriculture as we enter the 21st century.

What is Our Vision for Agriculture?

This continent has, in fact, enjoyed four visions for agriculture during its history.

* The first vision was one held by native Americans.

Their vision for agriculture was to feed the village---everyone in the village --- and to do so in a manner that disturbed nature as little as possible. So during the 15,000 years that native Americans lived on this continent before Europeans arrived, they developed the three sistersagriculture (corn, beans and squash) which they planted as companions in small, almost unnoticeable crevices of the ecological landscapes in which they lived.

* The second vision for agriculture was brought to this continent by the Puritans in the early 1600s.

They were driven by a vision of “taming the wilderness and building thekingdom of God.” And agriculture was a key component of that vision. Their vision of the kingdom of God included cleared forests, plowed prairies and nice neat rows of corn. It was an integral part of the social order they envisioned for their “new” life on this “new” land.

* A third vision for agriculture dominated this continent in the 18th and19th centuries.

That vision saw agriculture as a civilizing force. Thomas Jefferson was its
leading voice. Jefferson envisioned a democratic republic consisting of
thousands of small farm landholders, none beholden to political patronage or economic dependency, and therefore free to speak their minds and vote their conscience.

* In the 20th century, our vision for agriculture became part and parcel of our industrial dream.

We envisioned an agriculture that could produce all of our food and fiber (plus that of much of the rest of the world) with a dramatically reduced labor force, "freeing" citizens to engage in Industrial and professional pursuits that could dramatically improve our common quality of life.

Now it is important to recognize that in each of these visions agriculture is seen as a public good --- not simply a means of producing food and fiber.

Agriculture was seen as the vehicle for:

*  feeding the village in a manner that would please the inhabitants of the land seven generations into the future;

*  building a kingdom of God, thereby fulfilling a divine destiny;

*  creating a free and democratic society;

*  developing an economic system that freed people from the drudgery of
hard work to pursue lives of pleasure and leisure.

Each of these visions was compelling. They invited society to support agriculture because agriculture was part and parcel of a mission that served a greater good. In a forum sponsored by the Leopold Center several weeks ago, Karl Stauber, president of the Northwest Area Foundation, suggested that one of the dilemmas facing us today is that we have no compelling vision for agriculture as we enter the 21st century.

Today agriculture is perceived more as a public problem than a public good. If agriculture comes to mind at all for modern suburbanites, it is usually in connection with a problem that agriculture is perceived to have created. If agriculture is not perceived as the origin of our polluted groundwater, it is the culprit that is devastating the landscape with eroded soils, destroyed rain forests, intolerable odors, or end-of-stream dead zones. If it is not perceived as a leviathan force that prevents consumers from exercising freedom of choice in the marketplace, or denying farmers access to free markets, it is seen as a threat to public health, implicated in everything from mad cow disease, to E. coli, to cancer, to endocrine disruption.

So one of the challenges we face today is to develop a vision for agriculture that will enable citizens to perceive it, once again, as a public good. That vision must be grounded in observable results that meet the public's expectations. Those expectations now, as in the past, go beyond providing adequate quantities of safe, nutritious, good-tasting food.

Today the public expects, at least, that agriculture produce healthy ecosystems, human communities that enable families and farm workers to live a decent life, and domestic animal environments that show respect for normal animal behavior. Any vision for agriculture that fails to meet these “on the ground” objectives is not likely to be sufficiently compelling to enlist the support of urban and suburban citizens.  Simplistic clichés like “feeding the world” won't do.

So I invite each of you to join us at the Leopold Center to meet this new challenge, to begin the process of developing this new vision for agriculture.

This is not an easy task, nor one that we will complete in the next six months. But at least we can begin by asking the question --- what kind of vision do we want for 21st century agriculture?

What are the New Problems Facing Agriculture in a "Full" World?

The fact that agriculture is vision-less and perceived as a public problem is an opportunity rather than a barrier. Since the problems of agriculture are widely recognized, there will be broad public support to develop a new vision that addresses those problems.  Agriculture is already part of some of the most important and preeminent social agendas of the world. Two years ago Jane Lubchenco, then president of one of the most prestigious scientific professional associations in the world, the American Association of the Advancement of Science, challenged the entire scientific community to rethink its social contract based on the fact that we now, for the first time, live in a human-dominated planet --- or what Herman Daly likes to call a “full world.” (Daley, 1996)

Living in a full world means we no longer have unlimited natural resources to satisfy all our desires or unlimited sinks for the wastes generated by our activities. We no longer live in a world in which the impact of the human species is easily absorbed by the ecosystems in which we live. The size of the "ecological footprint" (Rees, 1999) that we leave today is now so large that we can no longer ignore the impact that our agricultural activities have on our local ecosystems.

Agricultural activities are central to our ecological footprint. When Jane
Lubchenco issued her challenge to the scientific community to craft a newsocial contract --- asking them to “devote their energies and talents to the most pressing problems of the day . . . “ ---  easily half of the problems she outlined are directly related to agriculture. Not least among the problems she identified is the fact that “more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by humanity than by all natural terrestrial sources combined.” (Lubchenco, 1998)

In other words, scientists both inside and outside agriculture now increasingly recognize a mounting set of problems created at least in part by agriculture. We simply have to deal with them if we are going to survive very far into the next century with any kind of quality of life.

Those problems include, but are not limited to:

*  Water logging and salinization, much of it caused by unwise irrigation practices. (Baskin, 1997)

*  Desertification. Seventy percent of the world's drylands are now threatened by desertification, and no one to date has found a way to reverse the process once it begins. (Baskin, 1997)

*  Depletion of water resources. “One-third of the world's food is now produced on artificially irrigated lands” and we are losing our capacity to harvest water, much of it due to the way we have changed the vegetation of the planet with our farming and forestry practices. (Baskin, 1997)

*  Soil erosion. The world's farmers are still losing 24 billion tons of topsoil each year. (Baskin, 1997)

*  Pollution. Soil erosion not only accounts for the loss of precious soil, it also causes eutrophication. Fertilizer (the annual use of which increased from 14 to 143 million tons between 1950 and 1989) runs into lakes and streams causing an algae overload and the eventual death of all oxygen-dependent life. (Baskin, 1997)

*  The increasing population of the human species. All of the above ecological changes are taking place at a time when the human species is increasing in unprecedented numbers. The combination of the increased number of humans in relation to other species, and the increased size of the ecological footprint that humans (particularly those of us in the developed world) are leaving on the planet, presents us with a difficult and complex set of problems that go far beyond simply producing enough food to feed the extra mouths.

How do we produce the additional food to feed the additional mouths without doing additional harm to an already damaged planet? How do we redesign the food system so that the hungry will be entitled to the food we produce? We currently have over 800 million malnourished people on the planet and insufficient production is clearly not the problem. How do we restore the health and diversity to our ecological communities to mitigate the additional disease that will clearly come with several additional billion humans in a world that is already too full? These and many other problems make it clear that an expanding human population requires much more than simply producing more foodstuff.

*  The loss of farmers. We are now at a point where (given the consistent decline in farm numbers, the increasing age of the remaining farmers, and the decline of young people growing up on farms) we are in serious danger of losing our most important human agriculture resource --- the farmer. We are, as Calvin Beale pointed out almost a decade ago, in a “free fall” situation. (Brown, et. al. 1993). According to 1997 statistics, farm numbers in the United States have declined from 6.5 million in 1935 to just over two million in 1997.

More troubling is the fact that of the two million remaining farms, 1.3 million are part-time, residential, or retirement farms while fully 61% of farm sales are captured by just 163,000 large industrial farms. And 63% of these industrial farms are tied to some kind of value chain through contract with a large corporation, so they aren't really farms at all in the traditional sense. (Cochrane, 1999)

Now, many in our society would argue that while the environmental problems noted above are indeed critical, the declining farm numbers are not. As one federal government official put it when I asked her about the declining farm population some years ago, “If two or three farmers can produce all the Food and fiber we need to meet our domestic and export requirements, who cares? In fact, if robots can do it who cares?”

Well, the brutal fact is that if all we expect from agriculture is that it produce as much as possible regardless of the cost, then she is right. Indeed, if all we ask of agriculture is that it produce sufficient quantities of food and fiber as efficiently as possible on a global scale, then Steven Blank, professor of Agriculture and Resource Economics at UC Davis, was correct when he suggested recently that the United States should get out of the farming business altogether because it can't compete with low-cost producers in other parts of the world. We should then, as Blank argued, put our national resources to work on higher value producing activities and leave the production of raw materials to others.

But farms are more than food factories. Farms aren't just an economic bubble floating in space with unlimited resources coming in, unlimited capacity to produce within the bubble, and unlimited space outside the bubble for waste going out. The 20th century vision for agriculture, producing as much as possible as efficiently as possible and externalizing all of the costs, may have worked in an empty world. It doesn't work in a full world.

Farms are ultimately not factories, they are biological organisms. As such they are an integral part of the ecosystems in which they exist. As biological organisms they function in a context of biological restraints that we cannot ignore for very long.

Craig Holdredge (1996), a young biologist in upstate New York, reminds us, with a simple illustration, why that is true. When we treat a cow like a milk factory whose milk production can be increased by tweaking some isolated part of the cow's physiology, we lose sight of the fact that for every additional quart of milk that the cow is forced to produce, an extra 300 to 500 quarts of blood must flow through the udder of the cow. To pretend that increasing the milk production of the cow can be done without having any effect on the cow, or the environment in which the cow exists, or the community of which the cow is a part, is --- if nothing else---bad science.

The reason that good farmers are important to the future of agriculture in a full world, is that ecosystems cannot be managed like factories. As Niles Eldredge, paleontologist with the Museum of Natural History, reminds us, there is no such thing as a global ecosystem --- there are only local ecosystems, and the health of our planet depends on the health of the combined local ecosystems. (Eldredge, 1995) So we cannot manage the restoration of the health of our global home on a mass scale through centralized, global planning. Each local ecosystem is unique.

The freeecosystem services that feed each ecosystem, and that ultimately make
agriculture possible in it, are unique to the location in which they exist. So the only way we can manage farms within local ecosystems in an ecologically sound manner, is if we have farmers living in those ecosystems long enough and intimately enough to learn how to farm in them in an ecologically amenable manner.

The reason we need farm families living in local ecosystems with the knowledge of those local ecologies passed from one generation to the next is that it is the most efficient way (and perhaps the only way) for agriculture to function in an ecologically sound fashion. Preserving the family farm has nothing to do with nostalgia, it has everything to do with maintaining a resilient agriculture in a full world.

In this regard, agriculture is not an isolated enterprise in trouble. It is not just agriculture that must learn how to fit into a full world, it is all of our human enterprises. The task before us is to reshape the way we Relate to the ecosystems in which we live so as to permit renewal and restoration of both the ecosystems and the institutions we have created in them --- including agriculture. And that requires a fundamental paradigm shift in our thinking.

Lance Gunderson and his colleagues have characterized this indispensable shift as abandoning our illusion of control management and replacing it with adaptive management. (Gunderson, et al. 1995) That provides us with one of several clues that may help us chart our way toward a new agriculture.


“The point was food, quantities of food. It all looked so easy, that tractor driver in his air-conditioned cab, that wonderful machine crawling across the face of the same earth it would have taken my ancestors forty years to plow. What matter if a whole style of life was gone? What matter if the earth no longer served a single family, a small parcel of immortality for the common man?
“All that was lost to me, as lost as a cherry orchard in which people no longer knew the meaning of cherries, as lost as the unwritten language of a long-expired race of men. All that mattered was food, the wheat on the hill, the hay in the meadow, the mutton under my boot. Whatever method could raise them best and most efficiently would win the prizes of the earth.

”There was little beauty to it, in my mind. There was only sweat, and maybe a certain sense of unspeakable smallness in my soul in that all the generations behind me, of all the lost tribes of my forefathers who had dug potatoes, milked cows, sown grain, picked fruit from primeval gardens, it had all come down to me in a knowledge I only wished to lose.”

--- Douglas Unger, from the novel Leaving the Land  (Harper & Row: New York, N.Y., 1984)


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Checks should be made out to A.V. Krebs and  sent to P.O. Box 2201, Everett,
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