Anyone who ever doubted that the majority of the general public could care less about how the raw materials that go into the manufacturing of their food and how the companies that manufacture that food operate and conduct themselves need only look at their newspapers and television sets in this age of corporate scandal du jour.
The recent passage of the Farm Bill provided ample proof that while the majority of farmers and the organizations they affiliate themselves with groveled over legislative scraps and allowed the Cargills, ConAgras, ADMs and the Tysons to dictate and frame the domestic farm policy debate the public was being hoodwinked by the media into believing the US farm economy was dependent on who gets federal subsidies and who doesn't.
Now we see the public being progressively shocked by one new corporate scandal after another. Yet these scandals, although much larger in dollars and cents than those which have been rampant in corporate agribusiness for the past several years, directly affect far fewer people (thousands of investors, stockholders, employees) as compared with those millions of people who produce the raw materials and eat the products each and every day that these scandal-ridden companies manufacture.
In recent years the media, the public and for that matter parochial farmers have paid little if any attention to such corporate agribusiness misconduct unless it resulted in their child dying from food poisoning, the loss of their farm or a close neighbor, or an environmental disaster that disrupted their daily lives. Rather, to the glee of the "merchants of greed" it has been usually the government and elected officials that have borne the brunt of the public's wrath when it comes to such health, economic and environmental tragedies.
That is not say that corporate agribusiness does not get its share of verbal outrage by farmers and consumers, but that is precisely the problem when it comes to corporate accountability: It is mostly verbal, and it is without specific focus and direct action. When one simply decries "corporate agribusiness" one decries no one.
A farmer who stands before you berating "corporate agribusiness" while wearing his Nutrena Feeds (Cargill) cap is undoubtedly what The Land Institute's Wes Jackson had in mind when he observed he wished that farmers would start using their heads for more than just corporate billboards. Likewise, a group of activists standing around denouncing the evils of multinational corporations while sipping their Gallo wine and munching on squares of Kraft cheese or popping their cans of Coca-Cola somehow miss the point on the nature of their foes' power.
While the public's attention has in recent months become focused on a continuing string of corporate scandals, similar scandals that preceded them within the food and agriculture sector continue to fester and, as was the case in their infancy, they continue to be ignored by the public and unreported on by the mainstream media.
Going back to 1995 when the FBI raided the Decatur, Ill. headquarters of Archer Daniels Midland ("Supermarkup to the World") in what was to be called "the best documented corporate crime in American history," where the nation's largest commodity processing company would be not only found guilty of price fixing, but stand accused of a variety of misconduct and questionable accounting activities, corporate agribusiness has remained impervious to genuine public accountability.
For example: In a Sept. 1, 2000, letter to New York Times managing editor William Keller, David Hoech, who with his wife and business partner, Carol, co-founded the ADM Shareholders Watch Committee, repeated instances of Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald's "unethical conduct." They included among others:
"In early summer of 1996 Eichenwald had the information that Thomas Frankel [former ADM treasurer] had embezzled millions of dollars from ADM with the Andreas's knowledge. If he had written the story at that time, it would have informed the stockholders of all the fraud [Mark] Whitacre was talking about at ADM which would have rid the company of the Andreas Crime Family and prevented the stock from falling to less than $9. ... He took time in January, 1997 to write an article that really creamed Whitacre, yet he couldn't report on ADM shareholders being ripped off of millions with the sanction of the CEO Dwayne Andreas."
Likewise, Nicholas E. Hollis of The Agribusiness Council noted earlier this year after the Enron scandal began making national headlines that: "Policy makers are running scared and trying to distance themselves from the Enron 'taint' but it runs deep. And there are rumblings of another imminent meltdown among the corporate high flyers: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) the Supermarkup to the World. Still controlled as a family fiefdom, ADM has outraged huge state pension funds in Florida and California which hold millions of shares of the company's stock, by failing to provide transparency in accounting during the long, drawn out price fixing scandal.
"ADM stock prices nose-dived from the mid 20's into the single digits, missing the entire bull market, while unseen millions were spent to mount an enormous legal counterattack which aimed at stalling the government investigation and maintaining ADM's contracts with USDA (even after a guilty plea)."
In still another questionable corporate scandal the merger between Tyson Foods, the nation's largest poultry processor and IBP, the nation's largest beef processor, was "delayed" for months when inaccuracies in the financial statements of an IBP Inc. subsidiary, DFG, a small Chicago firm that made appetizers and desserts and which IBP acquired for $32 million in 1998, raised serious and troubling questions for Tyson Foods in its desire to purchase the nation's largest meat packing company.
Initially IBP had disclosed that it thought a $9 million reduction in pretax earnings in 2000 would cover the "inaccuracies" in its financial statements. Then IBP revealed it possibly faced a possible $47 million pretax charge. However, that is "only part of our concern" a Tyson spokesperson told Dow Jones Newswires pertaining to a letter in which the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) raised questions about numerous other financial issues. Tyson said the SEC's letter concerned various accounting issues, including the methods IBP used to account for recent acquisitions.
Then there was Farmland Industries, the nation's largest farmer cooperative. As Alan Guebert wrote in his Farm and Food File column of June 9, 2002, "After a long explanation of his global vision for Farmland Industries back in the 1990s, then-boss Harry Cleberg was asked what it all meant. In one of the most arrogant quips in the history of US agriculture, Good Old Harry got a gleam in his eye and pronounced, 'We're gonna' out-Cargill Cargill!'
"On May 31, Cargill stood like a rock; Farmland, however, the nation's largest farm cooperative, slouched into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The biggest part of Good Old Harry's global strategy still in place that day was the massive debt Farmland owed German and Dutch banks. ... By August 2000, the rubber-stamp Farmland board finally retired Good Old Harry, but not before awarding him $633,584 in salary and a $700,000 bonus."
Pile these infamous ventures onto the long list of food recalls, contaminated seeds, abusive and discriminatory treatment of workers, openly currying political favoritism through campaign contributions and you have an agriculture industry riddled with corruption, greed, and misconduct coupled with little or no public accountability. Where one might rightfully ask is the outrage !!!
In a recent New York Times column, "The Age of Acquiescence," Maureen Dowd succinctly notes: "Ralph Nader said the phrase he coined in 1970, 'corporate crime,' is the new catch phrase in business magazines. Three and a half decades ago, the mantra among young people who railed against capitalist pigs and government lies was 'the fix is in.'
"'The fix is now institutionalized,' Mr. Nader says. 'When Congress won't double the S.E.C. budget in the middle of a corporate crime wave, it shows that the system is irreversibly decayed. As Brandeis said, we can have a democratic society or we can have a concentration of great wealth in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.'"
She adds, "People used to be shocked when a member of an administration said that what's good for General Motors is good for the United States. But with the Bush administration, the sinful synchronicity of business and government is just a day's work, and nobody is reeling from the spectacle."
It has been said that one of the fundamental challenges we face in today's corporate dominated agriculture is that consumers need to better know and understand what happens to their food before it reaches the farm gate and farmers need to know what happens to their product after it leaves that farm gate.
A fundamental step in that process is to focus on those specific individuals and corporations that are exercising, often unscrupulously, their financial and political power in controlling and dominating our food from the ground to the table.
The days of generalization are over, it is time we start taking names and addresses!
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ea1.com/CARP/