Ironies abound! We read a flag-waving self-aggrandizing national media praise our government for its 37,000 meals a day food-from-the-sky effort in Afghanistan, while voices like the Nobel-winning French organization Doctors Without Borders are barely heard as they charge that the effort is "virtually useless and may even be dangerous.
"Furthermore, the confusion between military and humanitarian operations only increases the danger for already complicated humanitarian action, limiting even further the possibilities of intervention," the aid group said.
One aid group after another echoes such an assessment, where several million Afghans face the imminent threat of starvation, as some of the food, inevitably, is landing in what has been termed "the world's largest minefield."
We learn that packages, which bear the words in English, French, and Spanish (!) "Food gift from the people of the United States of America," are being dropped from two C-17 cargo planes, packed in crates designed to break open on hitting the ground, with each package having its own paper wing attached to help it survive the high-altitude drop.
We are being told that these "humanitarian daily rations," each packet containing 2,300 calories, barely enough to sustain one person for one day, are as important for their "psychological value" (read propaganda) as their nutritional effect, because the packages often get into the wrong hands.
Each package contains:
* Beans and lentils in tomato sauce;
* Peanut butter;
* Strawberry jam;
* Fruit bar;
* Beans and tomato vinaigrette;
* Biscuit, shortbread and fruit pastry;
* Utensil package of salt, pepper, napkin and a match.
As the New York Times' Dexter Filkins reported from Khwaja Bahouddin, Afghanistan, while most Afghans eat with their hands, each American kit contains plastic cutlery and packs of salt and pepper with directions on each packet printed in English, French and Spanish despite the language spoken being Dari.
While many villagers expressed appreciation for the American aid, Filkins reported, they said that they would have been better served by gifts of wheat and rice. "It's not enough," said Mahabullah, an 18-year-old who came to gather some of the American aid packets. "We need wheat, rice, sugar, and meat. And shoes and clothing."
We read that United Nations estimates that there are 7.5 million hungry people in Afghanistan. If every ration pack reached a starving person, then one two hundredth of the vulnerable can be fed by the humanitarian effort in one day. Yet we watch on our television screens films of people collecting such packets in carts and selling them on the street, or feeding them to animals, or children, thinking the peanut butter is some sort of silly putty game, squeezing it onto the ground to play with it.
The US Department of Defense has announced that it possesses an additional two million of these packs, which it might be prepared to drop. If so, they could feed 27% of the starving for one day. But it is only days now before winter envelops Afghanistan, during which enough food must be delivered to last until March as we are prepared to drop barely one quarter of one day's needs.
The Times of India reports that as many as 100,000 Afghan children could die this winter unless food reaches them in sufficient quantities over the next very few weeks, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). UNICEF spokesman Eric Laroche said the organization needs $36 million to carry out its "bare emergency work" inside the country but so far has only received half that amount.
"If you are a child born in Afghanistan today, you are 25 times more likely to die before the age of five than an American or a French or a Saudi Arabian child."
Laroche said more than half the children in Afghanistan were already malnourished and 300,000 children died each year from preventable causes inside the country. United Nations spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker also described the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as "the most serious, complex emergency in the world ever."
Meanwhile, we hear Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld defend these air drops stating "it is quite true that 37,000 rations in a day do not feed millions of human beings ... on the other hand, if you were one of the starving people who got one of the rations, you'd be appreciative," while Peter Bell, president of CARE USA, points out that the packets "can fall on people, they can cause hungry people to trample over one another when they land, and they can fall into the wrong hands."
Against such a cacophony of hypocrisy and contradictions, we listen to President-Select George W. Bush appeal to the children of America to send dollar bills for Afghanistan humanitarian relief as we continue a bombing campaign that is likely to only accelerate the momentum of mass starvation in the country.
At the same time, Bush's fellow party member, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking minority member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, is deploring the rush to pass a farm bill as "irresponsible," adding, "Let's come off of it ... we have gone to desperate means to curtail (grain) supplies in this country. To imply somehow we need a farm bill in order to feed our troops and feed our nation is ridiculous. The facts of life are we've got it coming out of our ears."
At the same time while we watch nightly on our television sets humanitarian aid trucks located in Pakistan being loaded with grain hopefully destined for the starving millions in Afghanistan in bags emblazoned with "USA" across their front, many of the producers of that very same grain in the "USA" are becoming increasingly dependent on food stamps for their own daily bread.
Clearly judging from some of the news stories we have seen in the past weeks one might easily get the impression that the causes of the many ills that affect us as a nation at home and abroad can be placed at the farm gate.
A careful reading, however, of such invective reveals that for the most part the general public, along with social commentators, academics, and politicians have not a clue when it comes to distinguishing between family farmers and corporate agribusiness' minions.
For example, Lawrence Soloman, executive director of the Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of the Energy Probe Research Foundation, writing in the The National Post of Canada, exclaims: "The war has begun and the profiteers are at work, parlaying the tragedy of Sept. 11 into lucre for their pocketbooks. The penny-ante profiteers, like the gas station operators that preyed on public fears and jacked up pump prices to $5 a gallon, have already been shamed into repaying their ill-gotten gains. The big-time profiteers don't shame so easily.
"In past wars, the big winners were the arms dealers and other suppliers to the military. This time around, the big-time profiteers don't supply the government. They sponge off the government. At the head of the sponge line are the United States' farmers."
Ironically, Sen. Pat Roberts, (R-Kan.), is sponsoring an "agro-terrorism" measure that calls for spending about $1.1 billion next year, and about $271 million in each of the next 10 years. "Our nation's crops and livestock are now at very high risk," Roberts said.
"We must move quickly to prevent attacks on grain and livestock production," he said. "We must begin a massive research effort to develop vaccines and antidotes to halt diseases that could damage our food supply in the future." Roberts said he is particularly worried about the chances of an attack on the food supply, claiming one of the 22 men recently placed on the FBI's Most Wanted list has "agriculture training."
Rightfully, one of Roberts' farm constituents, Tom Giessel of Larned, Kan., points out: "Gee, he must believe the farmers can afford to protect the rest of the nation with their huge windfall of farm payments. It appears to me that someone doesn't have a very good handle on the economic conditions in our rural communities.
"I believe the farmers and ranchers of this country are already going above and beyond by burning up their assets to ensure mass quantities of safe and cheap commodities. Probably the easiest way to 'contaminate our food supply' is with imports. Very little is inspected [Note: GAO has estimated that less 1% of imported food is being inspected before it enters the US] or even traceable. A lot is perishable and moves fast. But I am sure that angle is trade distorting in some politicians mind. I believe people should contact our congressional delegation and let them know we are doing our job and since everyone shares the 'benefits' of cheap food, they can also share in the cost of maintaining that safe and constant supply."
In addition, one need only look at the current debate about the current farm bill wending its way through the Congress and the battle over who gets farm payments and what amounts they receive to see the general ignorance of farm economics and the current state of American agriculture.
To lump Maurice Wilder, a Clearwater, Fla., developer who controls 130,000 acres of farm and ranch land in eight states who has collected $1.2 million farm "subsidies;" King Ranch Inc., a Houston-based Texas company that owns 825,000 acres, which got more than $638,000 under the USDA program; John R. Simplot, a retired tycoon worth $4.7 billion by Forbes magazine's last tally, received $167,000 in aid through the family's Idaho farming empire while a trust in Simplot's name got another $92,000; former Chase Manhattan Bank chairman David Rockefeller, grandson of famed oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, received $146,000 in subsidies; IBP, Chevron of California ($100,770), Archer Daniels Midland ($17,793) and Caterpillar ($59,184); California's J.G. Boswell Co., or Tyson Foods, or a host of other large agribusiness corporations, with the likes of those farms below $250,000 in yearly sales (approximately 1.7 million farmers), where such payments were not "subsidies" in the popular sense at all, but rather desperately needed farm income, is grossly unfair.
In 1999, according to the USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS), farms with sales of more than $250,000 received 45% of such "subsidies," while farms with sales between $50,000 and $250,000 received 41% of such "subsidies," and farms with sales below $50,000 received a meager 14% of such "subsidies."
At least 20 Fortune 500 companies and more than 1,200 universities and government farms, including state prisons, received checks from federal programs touted by politicians as a way to prop up needy farmers.
"Subsidies" also went to real estate developers and absentee landowners in big cities from Chicago to New York. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, called such examples an "embarrassment, a black eye that can only undermine public and taxpayer support for the programs."
The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), the nation's largest self proclaimed "farm" group and who unquestioningly does more than any other organization in the agribusiness community to give family farmers a "black eye," supports such corporate welfare.
Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist for the AFBF, argues against limits, saying big farms take bigger risks, log higher expenses and produce more of the crop. "It's not like these guys are getting rich from government payments," Thatcher said. "They've had to have them in order to survive."
The AFBF, however, is not the only "enemy within" agriculture that contributes to the negative image of family farmers. One such glaring example is the long-time proponent of agribusiness's "conventional wisdom" -- "get big or get out" -- and frequent USDA consultant Dr. Luther Tweeten, professor emeritus in agricultural economics at Ohio State University.
At a recent midwestern event billed as a "Debate on the Structure of Agriculture" Tweeten attacked a fledgling middle-of-the-road agricultural producer think-tank, which is seeking to strengthen anti-trust laws as they apply to agriculture, in these words.
"And when we pass around innuendo, as the Organization for Competitive Markets does, for example, as to agribusiness, for people who are on the edge, that is enough to throw them over the edge. In a bunch of cases, bankers were killed by farmers because of that atmosphere of innuendo and fear and hate and so we're creating left wing hate groups such as the Organization for Competitive Markets, that I think is very damaging to the country. We should wait before we get our facts before we speculate about the mortal dangers of perceptions of some of the mergers or alliances or whatever and not use innuendo."
Until family farmers educate one another, organize and unite in common cause, putting aside their commodity and regional fetishes, begin to think long-term in trade and domestic policy matters, expose the uses and abuses of the undemocratic and self-serving AFBF leadership in its attempt to portray itself as the "voice of American agriculture," and persevere in informing and educating a food consuming public why the nation and the world's economy, health and environment are better served through family farming agriculture than corporate agribusiness, they will continue to see themselves pilloried and depreciated.
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203; email email@example.com; www.ea1.com/CARP/. See the Organization for Competitive Markets website: www.competitivemarkets.com.