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 but an international weapon while multilateral 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 implement their "economic imperialist" agenda, but 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 US, 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 1980s 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 1990s 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 metamorphose 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 with which corporate agribusiness has become identified, 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 failed policies derived from such "wisdom" are being exported globally by the US 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.

While some of these "merchants of greed" may not be familiar to most urban consumers, as they have no recognizable food brands on the local supermarket shelves, 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 political and economic power and ability of the world's largest commodity trader to influence, shape and implement food policies that benefit its own corporate interests. At the same time that it hides behind the cloak of privacy, until only very recently unrecognizable to brand-conscious grocery shoppers, it often remains the sole market to which a farmer is forced both by geography and/or 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 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 US Department of Justice.

One of the most dominant characteristics of modern-day corporate agribusiness has been its "urge to merge," to concentrate market power, reduce raw material and labor expenditures and eliminate competition. No better examples of this rush to concentrate can be found than in Tyson Foods and IBP, Inc. Here we have 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 its intent to purchase 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, because IBP was not forthcoming in some questionable past financial dealings, the two corporate giants are embroiled in a legal battle to determine who pays and who profits from Tyson's attempt to monopolize the meat and poultry industry.

Likewise, 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.

Its 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 emblematic 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. For anyone familiar with the history of 20th century Central American political intrigue, economics and land ownership the name should be no stranger. 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 US, 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 political dominance, but a lexicon of those characteristics that threaten to destroy our family farm system of agriculture, do immeasurable 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 time leaving them less and less democratic control over the price and availability of their daily food supply.

A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203; email; web:

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2001 The Progressive Populist