The Merchants of Greed

Corporation: n. “that inglorious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”    - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, Neale Publishing Co: 1911

Greed: “n. excessive, inordinate or rapacious desire, esp. for wealth . . . when unqualified, suggests a craving for food; it may, however, be applied to all avid desires . . .”   - The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged Edition), Random House: 1967

In another era they would have been called “the robber barons.” Today, the ADMs, the Cargills, the ConAgras, the IBPs, the Smithfield Foods, the Tysons, the Chiquitas and other corporate agribusiness behemoths which produce and manufacture our food have become the merchants of greed.

Food, next to life itself is our greatest common denominator, but to the merchants of greed it is but the coin of the realm, a means by which they can enrich themselves while the poor go hungry; family farmers are discarded as “excess human resources;”  farm and food workers and peasants become the slaves they rent; while politicians, regulatory agencies and academics serve merely as corporate figureheads to be bought, borrowed and brown nosed, while consumers ---in the immortal words of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) “Supermarkup to the World” “the competitor is our friend, the consumer is our enemy,” ----- are all being fashioned merely to serve a self-serving corporate definition of “free enterprise” and “free trade.”

To these merchants of greed food is also more importantly an international weapon while multi-lateral trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and multinational bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) have not only become simple policy and governing instruments whereby these corporations can impliment their “economic imperialist” agenda, but in in reality their wholly owned subsidiaries.

In its process of substituting capital for efficiency and technology for labor, corporate agribusiness, the realm in which these merchants of greed rule, have 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 an elite class of corporate "welfare cheats" living off taxpayer dollars, and basing farm survival not on earned farm income but on borrowed capital and so-called “rural development.”

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

By deifying, for example, “cost benefit analysis” at the expense of the “common good”  corporate agribusiness has also 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, we have arrived at a point where our family farm system of agriculture is facing its dark night of the soul, standing now on the threshold of eradication. Throughout the 1980's we saw an ever-mounting numbers of farm bankruptcies, foreclosures, and forced evictions reap a grim "human harvest" of suicides, alcoholism, divorce, family violence, personal stress, and loss of community.

Continuing into the 1990's we witnessed the very economic and social fabric of rural America being ripped asunder as the control of our food supply was seized by those merchants of greed 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.

Thus, in the grand scheme of history the 20th century may well be remembered as the point in the evolution of humanity when those corporations that trade, process, manufacturer, pack, ship and sell the world's food successfully removed the culture from agriculture and in the name of “efficiency” and in the pursuit of a globalized industrialization of the world's food supply reshaped agri-culture into an agri-business.

By attempting to deify their own myopic view of efficiency, however, corporate agribusiness has brought family farming, the democratic control of the people’s food supply, and a wholesome and healthy natural environment to the brink of global disaster which unless immediately recognized, confronted and thwarted will inevitably lead to worldwide economic, political, social and environmental chaos unlike any seen in human history.

For in measuring efficiency in strictly quantitative and economic terms, such as is currently being practiced by corporate agribusiness and its merchants of greed, the qualitative aspects of an agri-culture and a family farm food production structure are rapidly being discarded on the scrap heap of history as mere impediments to improving the “bottom line” of the unaccountable corporations that process and manufactured our food.

And as corporate agribusiness seeks to meta-morphize agriculture from a culture based upon the traditional family farm system of agriculture into a business where capital is substituted for genuine economic, social and environmental efficiency, and where expensive technology is substituted for labor we see a standardization of our food supply through an industrial manufacturing process based on the creation of synthetic foods, such as is now taking place through the use of genetic engineering.

Considering those characteristics by which corporate agribusiness has become identified with and comparing them with the historical characteristics of the family farm/peasant system of agriculture we begin to see more clearly how corporate agribusiness is the antithesis of family farm agriculture and how incompatible the two systems are in a democratically structured society.

Whereas family farming/peasant agriculture has traditionally sought to nurture and care for the land, corporate agribusiness, exclusive by nature, seeks to “mine” the land, solely interested in monetizing its natural wealth and thus measure efficiency by its profits, by pride in its “bottom line.” Family farmers, meanwhile, see efficiency in terms of respecting, caring and contributing to the overall health and well-being of the land, the environment, the communities and the nations in which they live.


While corporate agribusiness stresses institutionalized organization, hierarchical decision making, volume, speed, standardization of the food supply and extracting as much production from the land as quickly and impersonally as possible, family farmers and peasants strive through order, labor, pride in the quality of their work, and a certain strength of character and sense of community to take from the land only what it is willing to give so as not to damage its dependability or diminish its sustainability. 

But the so-called “conventional wisdom” in agriculture historically has been that through the continual substituting of capital for efficiency and technology for labor “inefficient” farm operators are eliminated by “market forces” while those who survive manage to thrive.

Such “wisdom” also perpetuates the myth that the world’s agricultural system is still dominated by independent family-operated farms and with the ever-increasing elimination of “inefficient producers” --- “excess human resources” --- we will witness a never-ending expansion of production to feed the world.

Nowhere has this “conventional wisdom” been more apparent and become the driving force of a nation’s agricultural and food policy than in the United States. Today, such policies derived from such “wisdom” are being exported globally by the U.S. by way of corporate agribusiness and its merchants of greed’s self-serving trade policies. Thus, it is imperative that farm and food policy makers, family farmers, peasants, workers and consumers world wide understand the implications and dire consequences of such “conventional wisdom,” for to ignore or dismiss corporate agribusiness’s inefficiencies as merely anti-capitalist rhetoric is to do so at their own future peril.

Examining several of these merchants of greed we must keep in mind in most aspects of their copoprate behavior each mirrors the general characteristics that can be found in any number of other giant corporate agribusinesses. Some may not be familiar to most urban consumers for they have no recognizeable food brands on the local supermarket shelves, but their meddlesome hands continue to shape this country and the world’s agriculture and food policies while the ingredients they manufacture are found in nearly all of our foodstuffs.

In the Cargill Corp., the nation’s largest private corporation, we see the politicial and economic power and ability of the world’s largest commodity trader to influence, shape and impliment food policies that benefit its own corporate interests. At the same time that it hides behind the cloak of privacy, until only very recently unrecognizeable to brand-conscious grocery shoppers, it often remains the sole market to which a farmer is forced both by geography and lack of competitive markets to sell the raw materials that they have produced on their farms.

No corporation other than Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) probably better illustrates the depths to which the corporate culture will sink --- fraud, conspiracy and corruption --- in its efforts to unseen and unseemly control world markets in farm commodities.  While producing and manufacturing a wide array of food, feed and fuel additives it also has the reputation as the nation’s single largest benefactor of corporate welfare through federal subsidies and tax loopholes.

At the same time, through its former board chairman and CEO Dwayne O. Andreas, the self-styled “Supermarket to the World” has in the post-war years been extraordinarily well politically connected and whose law firms Williams & Connolly and Akin Gump Hauer & Feld have been shown to have unbridled influence within the U.S. Department of Justice.

One of the most dominate characteristics of modern-day corporate agribusiness has been its “urge to merge” to concentrate market power, reduce lraw material and labor expenditures and eliminate competition and no better examples of this rush to concentrate can be found than in Tyson Foods and IBP, Inc. Here we have, or rather we had, the world’s largest poultry producer and processor and the nation’s largest meatpacking company respectively dominating their industry. Then in late 2000 Tyson’s announced it was purchasing the controlling interest in IBP’s stock, leaving the nation’s independent cattle producers and poultry growers, much less the consumers of these two staples of the American diet, at the price determining and availability mercy of Tysons, now the nation’s largest poultry and meat corporation.

Along with increasing concentration in the food production, processing and manufacturing industry we have also witnessed in the past 50 years the rapid movement toward vertical integration, where one corporation controls many or all of the various stages of food production. There is only corporation, however, that can boast that it literally controls everything from “the ground to the table” and that corporation is ConAgra, the nation’s second largest food manufacturer behind tobacco king Philip Morris. It’s story of how it acquired such power, marked by its ruthlessness in its relationships with its suppliers while purporting to give consumers healthy choices in their brand selection is endemic of corporate agribusiness today.

Used and abused perhaps best summarizes the fate of the environment  at the hands of corporate agribusiness, and in Smithfield Foods, the nation and the world’s largest pork producer and processor, we see case after case where its processing facilities and its factory farms have been despoilers of the water and air we and nature depend on for life.

Finally, there is Chiquita International and for anyone familiar with the history of 20th century Central American political intrigue, economics and land ownership the name should be no stranger for the history of the company, recently known as United Brands and before that the infamous United Fruit Company, now currently under the control of  Cincinnati businessman Carl H. Lindner Jr., Chiquita's chairman and chief executive officer, and his family, is notorious.

Not only has the company maintained its historically cruel tradition in its treatment of its foreign workers, but efforts by ex-president Bill Clinton to express his gratitude for a generous Lindner campaign contribution has in recent years precipitated an all-out trade war between the European Union (EU) and the U.S., acting on behalf of Chiquita, over banana imports abroad.

Thus with just these seven merchants of greed we can see exposed not only what has become standard corporate behavior in pursuit of economic and politcal dominance, but a lexicon of those characteristics that threaten to destroy our family farm system of agriculture, do immeasureable damage to our environment, sell farm and field workers into economic slavery while destroying rural communities, raise serious questions about the health and safety of our food supply, and restrict the consumer’s freedom of choice while at the same ttme leaving them less and less control over the price and availability of their daily food supply.

Former U.S. Senator Fred Harris, was always fond of saying that corporations can’t be made responsible because they have no soul to save nor butt to kick, but they can be made accountable and that is the initial task the world community faces today, to make our merchants of greed accountable.

Because food is literally history’s staff of life we cannot, we must not relinquish its vital role in our lives --- its control --- to the merchants of greed. Yet, as we embark on a new century we already are aware of the consequences of corporate agribusiness, thorough an increasing number of mergers, acquisitions and alliances, operating virtually at will in a world economic order almost completely devoid of any genuine social and economic justice.

Meanwhile, little or no alarm is being shown by our politicians and governments concerning this excessive concentration of power and its dangers to a free society as it undermines good economic performance, retards innovation and spreads into the political sphere through lobbying aimed at creating anti-competitive public policies.

In agriculture throughout the 20th century and into the 21st we have seen what can rightfully be called “America’s permanent  agricultural depression,” as opposed to “crisis,”  for as Northwest Iowa human development specialist Joan Blundall reminds us, ”we’ve got to stop using the word crisis. It’s cruel. Crisis by definition is short and intense and you know as well as I do that there’s nothing short-term about what we are facing. The families and the neighbors that we deal with have been in a condition of chronic stress and pain and grief . . .”

How our nation’s “permanent agricultural depression” evolved is what this author sought to explain and document in The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books: 1992).

Likewise, periodically the public has been exposed to the chronic plight of the men, women, and children who grow, nurture and harvest our food through novels like The Grapes of Wrath; moving photographs by the likes of Dorothea Lange; television pictures, poignant movies and TV documentary’s like “Country,” “Harvest of Shame,” and “The Farmer’s Wife,” of tearful families losing their farms or immigrant farm workers working and living in abject poverty.

But for the most part the plight of rural America remains out of sight, out of mind! Yet, each time we break bread and\or slake our thirst there is 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 seem-ingly 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 provide us with our daily food --- family farmers, still recognized as the most economic, socially and environmentally efficient producers of food on the planet, and farmworkers, the slaves that we rent.

Despite the vital role these people play in our everyday lives, however, they have become invisible to our 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 old saw that depressions are farm led and farm fed should not be taken lightly.

Yet, today there is abroad in the U.S. the mythological claim that family farmers are the mainstay of American agriculture and that claim is often expressed in terms that one U.S. farmer is producing food and fiber for 129 people --- 94 in the U.S. and 35 abroad.

But such a claim ignores the reality that today's farmer is just but one factor in a giant food production, manufacturing and delivery system called "agribusiness" for the term  has come to mean more than just owning and cultivating land to raise and produce crops and livestock (more, that is, than agricultural production). The term also covers financing agriculture and manufacturing, transporting, wholesaling and distributing farm machinery, fertilizers, chemical poisons, seed, feed and packaging materials. Agribusiness also manufactures, processes and markets food.

“In the United States the myth of the family farm continues to be used for the benefit of a relatively small group of large-scale producers and agribusiness firms, while the vast majority of rural and urban people, believing the myth, pay the economic, political, social and environmental costs of this fantasy,” so writes Ingolf Voegler in his The Myth of the Family Farm: Agribusiness Dominance of U.S. Agriculture.


"The conventional account of contemporary U.S. agriculture is widely accepted because it is based on the national ideal of the family farm derived from the Jeffersonian concept of agrarian democracy and from a small amount of truth. When a myth is widely accepted, this small amount of truth is perceived as the whole truth!" 

Voegler likewise suggests that the "family farm" myth, so persistently perpetuated by corporate agribusiness, has been avidly supported by four other myths, namely, the work ethic, the free enterprise, the efficiency and the equal opportunity myths.Together belief in these myths form the basis of what many in agriculture have come to call its "conventional wisdom,” namely that family farmers operate in an economic system that is efficient, moral and one that rewards individual initiative and effort.

Such long-standing duplicity on the part of corporate agribusiness, as Laura B. DeLind, a specialist in the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University, argues makes family farmers readily susceptible to (and firm believers in) agricultural programs, services, technologies and research that promote "efficient," business-like farm management and production. In turn, strategies of commercial "self-improvement" serve an economic and political system dominated by corporate capital.

"The family farm, like the `emperor's new clothes,' does not exist,” she adds,  “at least not in any analytically or programmatically useful way. It is a torturous twisting of reality, under the guise of `conventional wisdom,' and it obscures far more than it reveals. By accommodating all major organizational variation within a single conceptual category, the systematic reasons, particularly the economic and political reasons, for operational differences among farming enterprises are obscured. These latter are built, not on personality, managerial ability, or individual effort, the perceived `quality' or ownership, but on differential control over the processes and resources of production."

DeLind concludes: "The category family farm must be pried apart. It must be opened up so that its internal contradictions can be seen, not hidden, and used as a basis for identifying and comparing the relative class positions of producers.

This would provide a keener awareness of the structure of agriculture (why and how policies do and do not work and for whom). In addition, any long term action to reform the system --- to bring about a more equitable distribution of power and income --- must rest on class-based alliances which cut across the `family farm' category and which are not coincidental with it."

In the process of becoming keenly aware of the current structure of agriculture it is also vital that we keep in mind not only the priorities of corporate agribusiness’s merchants of greed, but how they have managed to concentrate their power.

As Harvard University’s brilliant  scholar Cornel West reminds us, we have in recent modern times witnessed “tremendous social movements able to gain some limited access to natural resources, some power and wealth”  nevertheless for the most part “the deeply conservative character of Amer-ican civilization is still in place, that character being twofold . . . economic growth by means of corporate priorities, which corporate elites and bank-ing elites, not simply having a disproportionate lot of power and influence, but at the same time such power and influence rarely being part of a public discussion such that we can question it and interrogate it in a concrete way,and on the other hand the very, very deep seat forms of xenophobia.”

The economic and political inability of family farmers and people living and working in the rural countryside to question and interrogate those corporate priorities emanating from both the steel n’ glass palaces of the city and business parks of suburbia in a concrete way lies in great measure to the fact that urban centers have always sought to dictate the way people who reside outside their boundaries should live.

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 own -ed 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.”

This “death” of the family farm, this “death” of democracy can be more clearly seen when we begin to examine, as the merchants of greed unrelentlessly seek to concentrate their financial and political power, the disastrous social, economic and environmental consequences of their greed for family farmers, the ecology, labor and consumers.

* From 1967 to 1992 the formation of new U.S. farms dropped to fewer that 67,000 a year while farms closing averaged 99,000, a net loss of 32,500 farms a year. In 1997 the U.S. had 329,000 fewer farmers than it had a decade earlier and while the nation's farm operators now number 1,911,850, down only 13,450 from1992 Census Bureau figures, only slightly more than half that number (961,560) listed farming as their chief occupation. In 1978 some 1,269,305 said farming was their chief occupation.

* Likewise, In 1999 less than 18,000 of the nation’s black farmers remained, down from 925,000 farmers in 1920. Since 1965, a 1990 congressional committee reported black-owned farms were going out of business at a rate five times that of white farmers and it was predicted that be the year 2000, there would be no black-owned land in the country as each day black farmers were losing 1,000 acres of land.

Adding to black farmers' woes, Ronald Reagan in cutting the USDA budget in 1983 eliminated its civil rights complaint division which ended any hope of federal investigation of complaints filed by minority farmers. In 1997, more than 1,000 Black farmers sued the USDA, seeking three billion dollars in compensation, covering claims from 1983 to 1997.

In January 1999, the agency and attorneys for the farmers reached an out-of-court settlement calling for forgiveness of the plaintiffs' government debts and a one-time tax-free $50,000 disbursement to each farmer, however, the process for the payment to the black farmers began to move at a maddeningly slow pace with 40% of those who applied to receive payment under the settlement being rejected. “With over 40% of farmers already rejected, it will lead to the end of Black family farmers in this nation,” said Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association.

* In 1997, 73.6% of the nation's farms shared 6.8% of the market value of agricultural products sold while 7.2% of the farms received 72.1% of the market value of agriculture products sold, leaving those 18.2% farms with yearly sales between $50,000 and $249,999 a meager 21.1% of the market value.

* As recent as 1996, according to the USDA, 985,718 farms registered a positive net cash return while 926,108 showed a net cash loss. Even more telling is the fact, according to an August, 1999 USDA Economic Research Service forecast  that while the average farm operator household income ($54,503) in 1999 was on a near par with the U.S. household income, farm income was only 8.6% of that total. From 1995 through 2000  the yearly average of farm income of the total farm operator household income has been 11.16%.

* Meanwhile in 1997, the nation's food marketing system, with a value of $658 billion, accounted for 9.3% of the U.S. Gross National Product (down from 12% in 1972). Yet, animal and crop products value amounted to only $123 billion of that total, while the value added sector accounted for $535 billion. Likewise, the average farm value of the food we eat went from 49% in 1951 to 25% in 1996.

* In January, 1999 testimony before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee hearings on concentration in agribusiness, C. Robert Taylor, Alfa Eminent Scholar and Professor of Agriculture and Public Policy at Auburn University, testified about the implications for the agriculture economy of general trends in vertical integration and market concentration in agribusiness.

Among his findings were the fact that since 1984 the real price of a USDA market basket of food has increased but 2.8% while the farm value of that food has fallen by 35.7% and that a "widening gap" between retail price and farm value also exists for the components of that market basket, specifically meat products, poultry, eggs, dairy products, cereal and bakery products, fresh fruit and vegetables, and processed fruit and vegetables.

By way of illustration, between 1980 and 1996 in choice beef that gap widened by 42.4%, in pork it widened to 74.6%. In a one-pound loaf of wheat bread the gap from 1970 to 1996 was 238% and the gap in one pound of oranges from 1982-1996 was 59.8% to name a few commonly purchased items.

* It is when one looks at return on investment (equity) that the true picture begins to emerge as to who profits and who pays when it comes to the food we eat. During the 1990's, Professor Taylor points out, the rate of return on investment for retail food chains was 18%, for food manufacturers the rate of return was 17.2%, for agriculture banks it was 10.8% and for farming the rate of return from current income averaged 2.38%. USDA figures reveal that from 1995 through 1999 the rate of average return to farmers was 2.11%!!!!

Looking carefully at Professor Taylor's testimony it is noted, buried in a footnote, that "the average return to farming may actually include a return to integrators and non-family corporations, thus overstating returns to farmers, per se."

He goes on to point out that not only would retail food prices be relatively lower if markets were more competitive, but with the high profitability of concentrated agribusiness attributable to market power or to the realizing of economies of size it would permit such corporations to invest in product development "which might eventually benefit food consumers."

* Outside of developing agricultural biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food we see very little of the type of "product development" that Professor Taylor speaks about. Rather we see large amounts of money being spent on packaging, food advertising ($11 billion spent in 1996 compared with $8.4. billion in 1991) and corporate agribusinesses merging and acquiring to the extent that food manufacturing remains one of the most leveraged industries in the U.S. economy. Its debt alone in 1996 increased by $10 billion to a total of $318 billion. At the same time, since 1982 the food manufacturing sector has out performed the owner investment equity index for all other U.S. industries during most of those 17 years.

* Figures developed by Stewart Smith, a senior economist for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, vividly illustrates how serious our disequilibrium among the major divisions within agribusiness has become. In an October, 1992 study, covering an 80-year period, and viewing the economic activity within agribusiness sector by sector,

Smith found that farming suffered a shocking descent from 41% in 1910 to nine percent in 1990, while the input sector in agriculture rose from 15% to 24% and the marketing sector went from 44% to 67%. At the same time, the value of the marketing sector in real dollars increased from $35 to $216 billion, the input sector from $13 billion to $58 billion, while farming shrank from $24 to $23 billion.

As family farmers have seen their cost of production steadily increase the price they receive in the marketplace has been steadily dwindling. When one views this increase in the cost of production and decrease in price within the prism of corporate agribusiness’s goals one can begin to understand what is in fact transpiring.

Food processing and manufacturing corporations cannot raise prices of their products like those companies who manufacture television sets, cars, household appliances and such products that most consumers usually buy on an infrequent basis simply because food is bought on an almost daily basis and were consumers faced with constant increases in their food they would surely be in open revolt.

Yet these companies, these merchants of greed, ever mindful of their institutional stockholder’s best interests and the fact that consistently in the past they have returned double-digit figures when it comes to return on investment have sought to find alternative ways to maintain such high profitability figures, consequently they have reasoned the best way to do such is by cutting their labor costs and their raw materials costs.

Traditionally corporate agribusiness has sought to cut labor costs by subjecting the men, women and children who work in the fields, orchards and processing plants of the nation to below poverty wages and inhuman working conditions.

>From the blueberry fields of Maine to the poultry processing plants of the Delmarva region on the Mid-Atlantic coast, from the tobacco fields of North Carolina to the corn fields of Iowa, from the kill floors of the beef packing plants of Nebraska, to the fruit and vegetable fields of California and the Pacific Northwest’s fertile valleys, immigrants --- the vast majority of them believed to be illegal --- have historically and continue to be agribusiness’s chief supplier of cheap, docile, unorganized labor.

In addition, agribusiness in its single-minded pursuit of such labor, particularly in the U.S. Southwest, has relentlessly instigated, encouraged and sanctioned massive immigration into that region.

Paradoxically, however, when politicians and social commentators  discuss the “immigration crisis” it is usually in terms of the Mexican border, with scant attention paid to those thousands of legal and illegal immigrants now coming into the United States from other parts of the world.

Put aside the question of who really are “illegal” immigrants on territory that now comprises one third of the U.S. land mass, land  that once belonged to Mexico prior the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, land literally stolen from the Mexican people by a handful of thievish land barons in what land reformer Henry George once described as “a history of greed, of perjury, of corruption, of spoliation and high-handed robbery for which it will be difficult to find a parallel.”

The long-term consequences of such action was that, in the words of Ernesto Galarza, author of classic Merchants of Labor, the Treaty left “the toilers on one side of the border, the capital and the best land on the other.”

Therefore it is no accident that throughout U.S. history the chronic areas of rural poverty have remained the South, where the plantation system has dominated the agricultural scene, and the Southwest where vast tracts of productive land have remained in the hands of a privileged few throughout the years.

Clearly, U.S. agribusiness can say of illegal immigrants that they are the “slaves we rent.” When G.C. Hanna of the Department of Vegetable Crops, University of California-Davis, explained why he had undertaken the development of a tomato for processing and canning that could be harvested by a machine, he observed:

“I had gotten interested in the history of asparagus in California and I found that the first asparagus cutters were Chinese and the second group was Japanese. Then we had immigrating Italians and Portuguese, and then the Hindus and then the Filipinos in the 1940’s. And then I got looking at the rest of our agricultural labor and I found out that most were imported nationalities and we were running out of nationalities to import.”

It is no coincidence that more than 70% of legal and illegal immigrants in the U.S. now live in California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, all major agricultural producing states. Likewise, it is also no coincidence that in 1997 a mere 139,560 farms of the nation’s total 1.9 million farms had over 77% of the total U.S. agricultural labor expenses. Yet, today agribusiness both blames and exploits immigrant workers for many of the social ills which pervade our society, for example, their being responsible for the nation’s drug traffic and increasing welfare rolls.

But, as John Palacio of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) explains: “Immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want. They are not only blamed for economic ills, but exploited for cheap labor. But they contribute much more than they receive.” One 1995 study, sponsored by the Cato Institute, a “libertarian research group,” found that each year the average immigrant family adds about $2500 in taxes to the economy above what it consumes in public costs.

A federal Commission on Agricultural Workers estimates that there are 2.5 million farm workers in the U.S., up from 1.8 million in 1960. About 800,000 of those current workers lack adequate shelter, according to the Housing Assistance Council, a Washington-based consulting group that studies rural housing.

Because the nation’s agricultural work force in recent years has changed so dramatically it now makes it more difficult for the government to improve the workers' living conditions, whether by providing housing itself or pressuring growers to improve the housing they provide. Many of the immigrant workers leave their families behind, coming with the goal of returning home as much of their earnings as possible.

Because it is possible for them to earn up to ten times what they can at home, these workers are willing to tolerate living conditions and wages that few American workers would accept. Such an economic imperative is so powerful that it has assured a plentiful supply of migrants even as real farm wages have fallen by more than ten percent in the last 20 years.

In 1999 the median hourly wage for U.S. farm workers was $6.05 with a median annual wage of $12,150, well below the current poverty level.

Likewise, many of the workers that can be found in the fields and orchards of the nation are children.

In 1998 the Associated Press, in a perceptive and riveting five-part series, "Children For Hire," examined child labor in these United States. The AP in an effort to learn just how many under-age children were currently in the nation's workplaces asked Rutgers University labor consultant Douglas Kruse to analyze monthly census surveys and other workplace and population data collected by the federal government.

The study, which then U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman called more compressive than anything her department had produced, found that 290,200 children were employed unlawfully in 1996, that among them 59,000 were under the age of 14, that 123,000 of those children worked in agriculture from California to the Midwest to Delaware, of that number 61,000 of the 14-17 year olds lived apart from their parents.

In addition it is estimated that uncounted thousands more are under age 14.

One finding contained within the AP investigation of "Children For Hire" that squarely puts the question of child labor, particularly in the fields, into sharp focus is that fact that employers saved $155 million in wages in 1996 alone by hiring underage children instead of legal workers.

"If adults were paid a living wage, we wouldn't have child labor," Ann Millard, a Michigan State University anthropologist who studies migrant labor conditions rightfully states. One might also add that if family farmers, particularly those under contract to large food processors, were paid a fair price for what they produce, agriculture would not have the historical problems that it has had when it comes to paying its field labor.

Indeed, a 2000 General Accounting Office report shows that there is "no national agricultural labor shortage at this time," despite efforts by a number of  farm industry associations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), to expand the number of temporary work visas for the so-called guest workers by arguing that some regions face labor shortages, which are likely to increase as immigration officials step up efforts to bar and return illegal aliens. Guest workers typically work for two or three months on jobs ranging from sheep herding to apple picking.

Farm labor advocates have rejected such requests pointing out that increasing the number of such guest workers will undercut the wages of field laborers nationwide and weaken efforts to unionize them.

As Dolores Huerta, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers, charges, "there's definitely a surplus of farm workers." In a telephone interview with the New York Times Stephen Greenhouse she added, "that explains why there has been a drop in farm-worker wages over the last 10 to 15 years. They have dropped wages substantially because they always know there's a large pool of workers they can get."

As evidence that there is no shortage of farm labor, the GAO has said that of the nation's 20 largest agricultural counties it surveyed in the summer of 1997, 11 had unemployment rates more than twice the national average of five percent, and 15 had jobless rates two percentage points higher than the national rate. GAO also noted that after accounting for inflation, the average hourly wage of farm workers fell by 17% from 1989 to 1995. That, the Congress's investigative agency said, pointed to a labor surplus, rather than a shortage.

Make no mistake about what we are talking about when we discuss children working in the "fields of infamy." We are not talking about the children of most farm families, who are vitally concerned about their children's health and welfare and who act accordingly. Rather, we are talking about those corporate agribusinesses and frequently the business and labor contractors in their employ who see children not as human beings but as simply, docile, cost-cutting production inputs --- extremely beneficial to their own bottom lines.

Not only are farm workers often exploited by their grower employers, but also by the farm labor contractor. Farm labor contractors, or "crew leaders," as they are known on the East Coast and in the Midwest, are usually persons who recruit workers for a grower and then subsequently often "care for" while at the same time "shake down" the workers, not unlike the manner in which pimps handle their prostitutes.

Recognizing the abuses of farm labor contractors the federal government has sought to regulate their behavior for over the past 35 years, beginning with the passage of the Farm Labor Contract Registration Act of 1963. But because it was seldom enforced it has had only a minimal effect on the lives of farm workers. An amended act in 1974 sought to broaden its coverage and enforcement capabilities.

It was not until in the 1980's, however, after negotiations between farm workers and farmers that one of the few consensus farm labor bills in history was enacted in 1983. The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act switched emphasis from registering farm labor contractors to protecting migrant and seasonal farm workers.

While progressively stricter regulation in recent years was expected to diminish contractor activity it has been expanding, despite enforcement efforts indicating that more than half of all contractors investigated are violating at least one provision of the 1983 act. Despite criminal fines of up to $10,000 and three-year prison terms and civil fines of $1000 per undocumented worker, estimates indicate that many contract crews are 30% to 60% illegal alien workers.

It was an angry Cesar Chavez, founder and long-time president of the United Farm Workers (UFW) who once declared: “I would rather that there be no union at all than to recognize the rotten contractor system.”

Besides reducing labor costs there is also the question of reducing raw material costs as a means of maintaining corporate profitability. It is often said that the U.S. has a “cheap food policy;”  that we spend less per capita for food than any country in the world.

In fact, however, what we have in reality is a cheap raw materials policy. In devising such a policy, corporate agribusiness has successfully managed to sell the idea to farmers that through technological change they can cut back on their input costs and become “efficient managers,” when in fact in the end the cost of the new technology ultimately drives them further and further into debt.

Yet this mania --- that through technological innovation family farmers are going to not only survive, but prosper --- continues to dominate agricultural policy discussions as witnessed in a speech that U.S.Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan gave to a March, 1999 Independent Bankers Association convention in San Francisco, California.

“I cannot stress too much the overwhelming importance of technical change as a primary force that will likely be reshaping farm supply conditions --- as it has been doing for a long time. As a consequence of each producer's striving to become more efficient and thereby to contain costs, successive waves of innovation have swept through the farm sector over the decades. Crop producers, in stages, have implemented increased mechanization, heavier uses of fertilizers, new higher-yielding varieties of seeds, low-tillage methods of production that have enabled producers to economize on energy inputs, and heavier reliance on chemicals and pesticides to reduce crop losses.”


Greenspan, in his talk to some 2000 small town and rural bankers, also heralded the ability of U.S. agricultural producers “to economize on energy inputs,” yet between 1987 and 1997 the cost to farmers of seeds, fertilizer and agricultural chemicals alone increased 86%. Thus, while farmers received $123 billion for their animal and crop products they paid out $185.1 billion in production expenses.

Greenspan, outlined to the bankers some of the “still further technological advances  that appear to be coming on line in farming or are waiting closely in the wings,” e.g., wider use of combinations of electronic sensors, computers, and communications equipment and biotechnology. He stressed that “the general direction of change is clearly toward more precision and control of farm production processes. Over time, those changes surely will lead to a further lowering of real production costs as well.

“For the most part, the successive waves of technical innovation have tended to give farmers who are able to reduce costs the most a leg up in expanding their operations. These low-cost farmers are the ones best positioned to acquire additional acreage or finance the investments that can foster still further reductions in unit costs. Over time, farms thereby become fewer in number but are larger and, in most cases, more efficient, with strengthened ties to nonfarm businesses that supply inputs that are essential to improved technologies.

“The new technologies,” he adds, “seem destined to integrate farming operations still more tightly into our complex modern economy. This increased integration does not necessarily impinge on family farming as a way of life, but it does alter the image of the independent farmer that remains so deeply rooted in the American psyche, even as the percentage of our labor force that is engaged in farming has fallen from more than 35% a century ago to a little less than 2-1/2% today.”

While Greenspan concedes that “farm cost containment depends not only on technical efficiency but also on the prices of inputs, which farmers do not control,” he also acknowledges that “the range of financial circumstances across individual farming operations is considerable, and although producers in general appear to have remained profitable, some producers, plagued by higher costs or adverse weather, are having to make financial adjustments.

“The severity of those adjustments,” he concludes, “are compounded for producers who are more heavily dependent on debt. In some cases, farmers and farm lenders are reworking”  financial arrangements  “to help producers get through what presumably is a transitory -- though by no means abbreviated -- period of softness in the demand for farm products. Even when export demand improves, some producers may find it a struggle to stay competitive with farmers whose real costs per unit of output are being pushed ever lower by technical advance and innovation.”

While Greenspan talks about “efficiency” in food production, people living in the U.S. and in the industrialized North of the world (for the most part and unlike the majority of the Third World’s population) have come to regard food as an infinite, rather than a finite resource, caring little how it makes its way from the ground to their tables. The process by which their food becomes available to them, the fact that nearly 95% of it is now manufactured by giant transnational corporations, that the quantitative and qualitative price they pay for such food is rarely revealed, the fact that the family farm/peasant system of agriculture which has traditionally provided our abundant cornucopia of  food is rapidly disappearing from the world’s landscape appears to be of no major concern to them.

Yet it is they who are the ones who continue to pay the “external costs” for an inefficient corporate agribusiness so it can continue to function and sustain itself by taking advantage of a variety of hidden public subsidies.

Much, as we have said, is made in the North of the “decreasing” cost per capita of food, but the fact that such food is being paid for --- expensively paid for elsewhere --- is seldom factored into this cost equation. Because today's methods of industrialized farming has become so exploitative in nature and practice while camouflaged in the rhetoric of “efficiency,” its negative consequences in the form of externalized costs have often become totally hidden or extremely difficult to document.

On one hand we see all types of pollution, impacts to health, flooding and drainage problems, accumulation of animal waste, salinated soils, eroded soils, compacted and hardened soils, drained aquifers, rivers that no longer flow, and loss of ecological diversity.

For example, Rattan Lal, an Ohio State soil scientist, in 2000  warned that the quantity and quality of the world's soil will not meet future food demands if the population keeps growing at its current rate and soil conditions are not improved. A specialist in soil degradation and carbon sequestration (keeping carbon in place in the soil),  Lal argues that two key 21st century concerns --- a limited global food supply due to the increase in world population and the increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases ---are linked to soil quality, especially its carbon. Atmospheric carbon dioxide, he pointed out  is rising at a rate of 3.3 billion metric tons per year. In addition to fuel combustion, the rise is caused by soil cultivation, biomass burning and deforestation.

Even more gaseous emissions-including methane and nitrous oxide-are caused by declines in soil quality from erosion and nutrient imbalance, Lal says. Before the 1970s, more carbon went into the atmosphere due to soil and agricultural activity than from fuel combustion. Now, agricultural activities are responsible for about 25% of global emissions.

Likwise, as the physical environmenmt suffers, we see the economic environment suffer with the demise of rural communities, lost businesses requiring those few people still living in what were once self-sufficient towns and villages having to travel long distances simply to shop, go to school, earn a living or attend church.

Those who have been forced from the land, likewise, find themselves migrating into large metropolitan areas where they either must compete for jobs with an already even more exploited ethnic and racial minority populace, often in the low-paying service sector, or forced to live on public handouts. Clearly, both the environment and the people who live in that environment ultimately must pay a price for such capitalization by corporate agribusiness, if not in their food bill, then in their tax bill, or more importantly their and their children’s future well-being.

Wisconsin’s Prairie Dock Farm’s Greg David points out that many of the examples of corporate agribusiness’s externalized costs are the result of so-called labor saving devices, technologies, chemicals or drugs.  As an example, chemical poisons may save labor, but they also pollute aquifers, and cause not only health problems for the people who work with them on a daily basis, but can also seriously affect the health of the people who consume the crops upon which they have been applied.

“We have also set up a condition,” David notes, “whereby the farmer has just lost a portion of control of his operation. When he started using chemicals, he bought into the addiction to cheap food ideals, and put in place a broker for part of his livelihood. In the meantime he won't get any richer producing at the highest capacity, because he will also have the highest overhead. Any excess capital from producing at high capacity goes to pay for the increased overhead. It is like a safety line lent out to farmers, that he becomes entangled in and is slowly strangled. It also acts as a mechanism for someone else to make profit off his work.  He has also traded pollution and health costs for labor, but never pays the costs of chemical use.”

A recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), based on satellite maps, reveals that much of the world's farmland is in such poor condition that farmers will have to find better ways than currently to grow crops or else their production won't keep pace with the growing population. Only about 16%  of the world's farmland is free of fertility problems, or "constraints," such as chemical contamination, acidity, salinity or poor drainage.

"The basic story is that agriculture is being pretty successful at keeping the world in food. It's been somewhat less successful in nurturing the natural resources that underpin that production capacity," said Stanley Wood, the report's lead author.

At the same time that the IFPRI study was being made public, Lester Brown of the World watch Institute was noting that “until now, the paving over of cropland has occurred largely in industrial countries, home to four fifths of the world's 520 million automobiles . . . For every five cars added to the U.S. fleet, an area the size of a football field is covered with asphalt. More

often than not, cropland is paved simply because the flat, well-drained soils that are well suited for farming are also ideal for building roads. Once paved, land is not easily reclaimed.”

As environmentalist Rupert Cutler notes, "Asphalt is the land's last crop." The United States, Brown adds, with its 214 million motor vehicles, has paved 3.9 million miles of roads, enough to circle the earth at the equator 157 times . . . In developing countries, however, where auto- mobile fleets are still small and where cropland is in short supply, the pav-ing is just getting underway. More and more of the 11 million cars added annually to the world's vehicle fleet of 520 million are found in the developing world.

“This means that the war between cars and crops is being waged over wheat fields and rice paddies in countries where hunger is common. The outcome of this conflict in China and India, two countries that together contain 38% of the world's people, will affect food security everywhere,” he concludes.

Yet, no cost is being accessed for the externalities today as corporate agribusiness becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of the merchants of greed who have come to profit the greatest from agriculture. Such costs are being born by the environment and in turn, by the public, to whom these shared resources belong.

Clearly, if family farming agriculture is to survive,  if our environment is to remain livable it is fundamental that we need a full-cost accounting of each and every one of these externalities because as David reminds us “ these costs are real, and do not just go away.  They become liabilities that some one will end up dealing with. Somehow, these costs need to be billed to the transgressor, and only then, will we have True Cost Accounting  of the unseen costs of production.  We need true cost accounting to avoid the terrible consequences that will eventually beleaguer our children.”

Former Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson said it this way, "The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.  All economic activity is dependent upon that environment with it's underlying resource base.  When the environment is finally forced to file under Chapter 11 because it's resource base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated,  irretrievably compromised, then, the economy goes down into bankruptcy with it because the economy is just a subset within the ecological system."

In advocating the gospel that replacing labor with what Greenspan calls “ technical advance and innovation” corporate agribusiness has traditionally defined efficiency in strict economic terms, paying little heed, if not simply ignoring the fact, that efficiency in agriculture needs to be measured in social and environmental as well as in economical terms. In recent years we have also seen corporate agribusiness, as Greenspan notes, attempt to convince family farmers that accepting such expensive technology is essential if they are to share in the profits supposedly to be made in the export trade markets.

For nearly 40 years the American public and family farm agriculture have been bombarded with such trade propaganda, ranging from the plant “fence-post-to-fence post” rhetoric of the Nixon Administration’s Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz to the empty promises of Secretary Dan Glickman (and as Greenspan suggests), that the means by which family farm agriculture can become profitable and survive is through international trade, that “free trade” has now become the accepted panacea for all of the U.S.’s agricultural ills.

Yet, as Herman Schumacher, a cattle producer, cattle feeder,livestock auction operator and auctioneer from Herried, South Dakota, points out,  the USDA is continually promoting the concept that the global population, especially Asia, is growing and its people must be fed. But can this market, he asks, now afford to pay profitably for our agricultural exports? That simple question exposes the one fact that most of agriculture’s “conventional wisdom” today consistently chooses to either overlook or ignore, i.e., people do not buy food, money buys food ; consequently food is naturally going to go where the money is to be made.

As Schmacher stresses, “without profitable export sales, the 1996 `Freedom to Farm’ bill or any other farm bill which encourages maximum production will guarantee the U.S. producers’ demise. Washington policy of `produce and hope it sells’ has already caused the near bankrupting of American agriculture.

In February, 1999 testimony submitted by American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) board member Dan McGuire to the House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture hearings in Grand Island, Nebraska, using USDA’s own figures, McGuire asserts that one of the major flawed assumptions of agriculture trade is that farmers rely on the export market for most of their sales.

The reality, however, as he points out is that, with the exception of those few producers that make some specialty crop, identity-preserved export sales, farmers do not export their grain or oil seeds at all!  Farmers sell nearly 100% of their grain and oil seeds into the domestic market.  They deliver and sell those commodities to local or regional commercial grain elevators or processors. 

Those elevators or processors act as “gathering agents” for the multi- national exporters who actually do the exporting of the grain and agri-cultural products from the United States and those of this nation’s foreign competitors! Grain farmers don’t trade grain, grain traders trade grain!!!


“Thus,” McGuire argued, “it is the domestic market price that farmers receive and it is for that reason that  farm program price support loan rates need to be raised in order to provide farmers a fair price for what they produce.”

The combined total tonnage of corn, soybeans, wheat, grain sorghum, barley, oats and rice, McGuire noted, that was exported by the U.S. in Marketing Year (MY) 1996/97 and MY 1997/98, as a percent of production, only averaged 25%.  When soybean oil, soybean meal, beef and veal, pork, lamb-mutton and goat, and poultry meat are added, the total tonnage exported as a percent of production stills remains at 25%.  Multinational exporting companies only exported 19.4% of U.S. corn production in MY 1996/97 and only 16.3% in MY 1997/98.

“Why should Congress or U.S. farmers allow exporters to set the corn price when our market is entirely the domestic U.S. market?” McGuire asked the Committee.

Schmacher agrees: “The Congress and other political 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 an 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? (emphasis added

“Countries like the U.S.,” Schmacher concludes, “that are surrounded from input to output by the multinational corporate traders are forced to produce at below break even  prices. With incomes below the poverty line and without options of off-farm income, these farm families, trapped in monoculture production, are unable to even buy food for themselves.

I believe it is in our national security interest for the U.S. to protect our diversified and sovereign food production system and not allow it to be exploited and dismantled by the powerful multinational corporate interests. They’re interested only in trade, not prices paid to producers, or the overall well-being of any country’s economy.”

Responding to such pleas in March, 1999 a coordinating group composed of different international development organizations, farmers' syndicates, consumer groups, and environmental organizations calling themselves the Food Sovereignty Platform adopted ten demands which sought to place food sovereignty over commercial interests.

Stressing that “agricultural policies in industrialized countries have led to a situation where industrialization, concentration and overproduction have become the main features of the agricultural sector,” the Belgium-based group pointed out that policies focused on the free trade of agricultural products dictated by the WTO tend to serve the interests of the agro-industry to the detriment of the farming community and the consumers.

“Therefore, we demand the implementation of policies based on food sovereignty, which assert the right of all countries to determine their own food and agricultural policy according to their needs in close co-operation with producers and consumers' organizations. We therefore demand that agriculture be excluded from the WTO negotiations or that its rules be fundamentally changed, so as to achieve balance and equity in terms both of access to international markets and of supporting measures for agriculture,” they stated.

Clearly, increasing numbers of consumers in the U.S., as well as throughout the world, in recent years have become more conscious of who controls their food supply and the safety of that supply. While they express their concern about the antibiotics that are given to meat and poultry producing animals simply to make them grow faster, while they are demanding to know if their food has been genetically engineered, or whether their food has been simply irradiated rather than processed in a clean and safe environment, and while they worry about the continuing availability and the cost of such food, however, the merchants of greed remain almost totally obsessed by the need to increase their profits at the expense of the common good.

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