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Moving Forward Toward a Fair and Sustainable Agriculture System

So maybe you're irked that your broker recommended you put your entire 401K in drawing of a bag of food the Bigg Swirling Flush Fund. But at least your food supply is in the hands of solid, community-oriented corporations, right? Oops. Maybe not.

In the last Eco-Logical, we outlined some of the problems with industrial farming and the dangers to farmers and to us. Change is needed, but as in any case where vested interests are part of the equation, there are obstacles to changing the system.

In this final segment of our guest-article series by Pesticide Action Network North America, we look at how we get to the reality of that picturesque "e-i-e-i-o" farm that we can all envision in our minds. A major hurdle to overcome will be corporate resistance to reform. You can believe that they will fight... for their right... to profit.

The articles for this series were excerpted, with permission, from PANNA's Global Pesticide Campaigner, volume 13, number 2.

~    ~    ~

Industrial Agriculture and Corporate Power, pt 4
by Skip Spitzer, Pesticide Action Network North America

A transition to genuinely sustainable agriculture must confront the problem of corporate power. The growth of the corporate sector and the accumulation of extraordinary amounts of private wealth have radically transformed the role of the corporation. Large corporations have, in fact, become decisive players in determining the organization of society overall.

In the US, corporations produce 88% of private sector output, leaving basic decision-making about product development, resource use, production processes, and use of labor largely in corporate hands. Just 1% of US corporations produce 80% of private sector output, and worldwide, only 200 corporations—82 of them US-based and mostly larger than many national economies—control picture of corporate offices well over a quarter of the world's economic activity. In addition, many corporations are linked with other firms via owners, board directors, and senior managers who also own, direct and manage other corporations.

Corporations seek to maintain and expand their dominance via financial support for political candidates and office holders. One internal document of the Chemical Manufacturer's Association revealed the association's strategy of using political action committees to "upgrade the Congress" and "improve access to members." Big companies also influence ballot initiatives with financial support, such as the more than 4 million dollars agribusiness spent to defeat the 2002 Oregon citizens initiative to label genetically engineered food.

High-level employees commonly rotate through a "revolving door" between industry and the public agencies that regulate them, providing insider know-how and friendly connections through which rules can be bent and loopholes exploited. Through trade associations, consultants, and in-house specialists, corporations lobby government decision-makers and even provide them with policy drafts. For example, in 2000, Representative Richard Pombo introduced a House bill on pesticide regulation that was a nearly word-for-word duplicate of a 1999 draft by an industry consulting firm.

To discourage liability suits and silence critics, large firms sometimes file SLAPP suits—so-called "strategic lawsuits against public participation."

Even where corporations do not actively exert influence, holders of high office themselves frequently have significant holdings in large corporations or other financial ties or histories that predispose them to industry-friendly positions. For example, US Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman was a director of the biotech company Calgene (now owned by Monsanto) and served on the International Policy Council on Agriculture, Food and Trade, a group funded by Cargill, Nestle, Kraft, and Archer Daniels Midland.

Corporations influence media reporting by providing press releases and "expert" sources, lobbying reporters, and threatening legal action. For example, Monsanto repeatedly pressured Fox News over a story about the health risks of its recombinant (genetically engineered) Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). Fox killed the project and ultimately fired the reporters.




How Corporate Media News Shortchanges Our Democracy, Our Environment, and Us


The average adult in the US watches 21,000 television ads annually, 75% of them paid for by the 100 largest corporations. Thus, the public is far more likely to know Archer Daniels Midland as the "supermarket to the world," rather than as a multinational grain giant with a history of political contributions and favors, price fixing, and government subsidies.

Corporations influence science and research by funding university research and by funding research institutes and policy think tanks. The American Council on Science and Health—a think tank receiving 40 to 76% of its funding from corporations such as Dow Chemical, DuPont, and Monsanto—promotes the idea that concerns about pesticides like DDT and Alar are "unfounded health scares." Many researchers sit on corporate boards, own stock and have other financial ties to the companies to which their research relates.




DDT and Malaria
Will DDT Rise from the Dead?


Corporations provide schools with educational material, advice, teachers, presentations, exhibits, contests, and awards. Lifetime Learning Systems advertises:

Coming from school, all these materials carry an extra measure of credibility that gives your message added weight. Imagine millions of students discussing your product in class. Imagine their teachers presenting your organization's point of view.

What are the implications of allowing enormous companies around the world, pursuing little more than their own profitability, to exert such picture of silos broad influence nationally and globally and to create and maintain an industrial food system that deeply afflicts nature and people?

Rachel Carson is often credited with sparking the modern environmental movement in the US and elsewhere by raising awareness about DDT and other chemicals in her book Silent Spring. But many environmental movements may have missed an essential message when she wrote of "an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make money, at whatever cost to others, is seldom challenged."

Tackling the threat to public and environmental welfare is not just a matter of curbing particular corporate harms, or even creating and promoting sustainable alternatives. Ultimately, the structure of corporate rights and power must be addressed. Learning how to make meaningful change in the short-term while advancing the longer-term task of corporate reform is one of the key challenges for progressive movements today.

The original PANNA article was originally published in the August 2003 Pesticide Campaigner, a publication of Pesticide Action Network North America.

PANNA is the North America component of the broader Pesticide Action Network, a network of over 600 participating nongovernmental organizations, institutions and individuals in over 60 countries working to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with ecologically sound alternatives.

 End of Part 4 (End of Series)

~    ~    ~

So, the big battle lies before us, like Goliath standing before David. But in this case, there are many more Davids than Goliaths, and we Davids have lots and lots of stones—except that we call them "dollars" and "votes."

Here are a few things we can all do to use the power of our numbers to best advantage in aiding the effort and being healthier too:

  • Buy more organic and locally grown food; visit farmers markets.
  • Cook more meals using fresh ingredients; buy less processed food.
  • Support labeling laws (for instance, country-of-origin labels (COOL) and labels specifying whether a food contains genetically modified organisms.
  • Vote for politicians that will stand up against corporation-tilted trade agreements and organizations. (See our Environmental Voting Guide.)
  • Join a group committed to fighting this fight.

Thanks again to Pesticide Action Network North America for granting us permission to adapt their article for this series.

Publish date: 15-APR-2004

Other parts in this series: pt 1  |  pt 2  |  pt 3

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Songs for a Better Planet

Farmer, who knows not when to sow,
Consults the old man, clutching money in his hand.
And with a shrug,
The old man smiled,
Took the money, left the farmer wild.   more

Song: “Seven Stones”

Artist: Genesis

Album: Nursery Cryme

Category: Progressive Rock


album cover for Genesis, Nursery Cryme Is the "old man" in "Seven Stones" a metaphor for multinational agribusiness corporations? Unlikely, but the parallel is there—a desperate small farmer seeking sage advice, only to be sold a bill of goods, as in the ultimately empty promise of industrial agriculture. Regardless of the original intent of that particular passage, "Nursery Cryme" is an early Genesis album that is powerful on all levels—lyrically, musically, and emotionally. Other standout tracks include the shimmering "Fountain Of Salmacis," the elegant "Harlequin," and the epic "Return Of The Giant Hogweed." This album is well worth planting in your musical collection.

Read more reviews, hear clips, or get purchase info for this album at

See more Songs for a Better Planet

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"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."

— Abraham Lincoln [1864]


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