A month ago, I wrote a commentary that ran under the somewhat sensational headline “Agriculture’s deal with the dark side” (Nov. 22). Cargill responded the following week. Its counterpoint was called “Agriculture’s ‘dark side’ is highly overstated” (Dec. 2). I’m not sure why. The company made no attempt to address the issues I raised.
Cargill cares about farmers. That was the gist of its rebuttal. These days, the privately held food conglomerate is especially fond of farmers who live in developing nations. In Colombia, for example, tenant farmers are happy to work the pasture land Cargill is converting to the corn-and-soybean industrial model.
A friend of mine in Iowa says farmers aren’t farmers anymore anyway. He calls the farmers who follow this new model “chemical applicators and diesel mechanics.” That’s in reference to the heavy equipment and chemical inputs that have pushed yields through the roof even as they’ve pushed old-fashioned farmers off the land.
Cargill also has a great relationship with the environmental nonprofits I wrote about, better than I surmised. I’d expressed my concern that such alliances promote the mythology that a for-profit company can self-regulate, and I speculated that a partnership between Cargill and the World Wildlife Fund, whose website listed other corporate clients — including Coca-Cola but not Cargill — might be problematic given WWF’s oft-stated belief that farmer land ownership should be a cornerstone of Third World agricultural development.
It turns out WWF has no compunctions about helping Cargill establish itself in Colombia. In its rebuttal, Cargill boasted that it’s working with WWF and has forged an alliance with the Nature Conservancy, too.
Cargill also took issue with my assertion that its Colombian corn and soybeans could one day end up being exported, even though this is how multinationals are supposed to function in a market-driven global economy. Free trade is something Cargill believes in, just as some believe in communism.
I am not a communist. I used to be a liberal Democrat, but these days I’m at a loss to know what to call myself beyond lapsed Catholic, which I’ve pretty consistently been since age 10. I do think (and always have) that capitalism is a good way to harness our species’ competitive instincts and that constitutional democracy provides a healthy check on those instincts.
That, in fact, is what my article was about — how international commerce has concentrated corporate power and corroded the Chinese wall between the public and private sectors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is packed with former agribusiness executives, and now that corporations are people, politicians depend on their largesse to get re-elected. No wonder our public servants cave to the multinationals’ incessant bleating about how they need to outsource jobs and dismantle worker protections and evade taxes and flout regulations in order to remain globally competitive.
The ag conglomerates claim their purpose is to feed the world. In reality, they’re feeding a trend that allows a privileged few to dine on fresh organic vegetables and grass-fed meat while everyone else subsists on corn-based foods riddled with trans fats, growth hormones, corn syrup and pesticides. And for an industry bent on ending world hunger, it sure spends a lot of money developing nonedible farm products. This newspaper recently touted Cargill’s new soy-based substitute for the mineral oil used in electrical transformers. Agribusiness also benefits enormously from ethanol. Such products drive grain and food prices up in most parts of the world. In the U.S., farm subsidies — i.e., taxpayers — boost production while keeping food prices artificially low.
So how did my article overstate agriculture’s dark side? I’m still in the dark on that. I didn’t have room to discuss much beyond the conflict-of-interest issues. I didn’t mention that industrial agriculture is a leading contributor to greenhouse gases, or that scientists fear heartland soils may have lost their ability to recover natural fertility. I didn’t describe how plowing under wetlands affects water quality and wildlife, or how herbicides are killing bees and butterflies, or why the FDA just last week asked farmers to stop feeding cornfed animals antibiotics, and why this polite request will likely be ignored.
I also didn’t mention a recent trip I took to Iowa to see how those animals live. By most accounts, the people aren’t doing much better than the animals. Iowa has some of the filthiest air and water in the nation. Asthma and cancer rates are steadily climbing. That’s agriculture’s real dark side.
Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul. Reach her at email@example.com.