E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Carrying the torch for the corporate cadre

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2003 -- CropChoice commentary) -- Robert Zoellick is at it again. Our trusted trade representative says China is simply not honoring its commitments to the World Trade Organization.

Zoellick seems surprised that China won't dismantle its domestic policies that protect family farmers. It's a similar story in India, Brazil and the European Union. In his view, such policies distort free trade.

It's different here in the good old US of A. President after president and Congress after Congress, both Democrat and Republican, have whittled away U.S. farm programs in the name of free trade, efficiency, or whatever term sounds good. In reality it's all about sticking the boot on the necks of family farmers to guarantee maximum profit for a transnational corporate cadre. That means charging farmers the maximum for seeds and fertilizers, paying them as little as possible for the crops they grow with those inputs, and then selling the final food product to the consumer for the maximum price.

No surprise many farmers are broke or nearly broke. It's basically damage control in farm country. That means hush money: the welfare-style income support that's keeping farmers quiet while they're put out to pasture, permanently.

The message to the American farmer is "lower your price, produce for less, get big or get out." They've complied for decades. They're farming more and more land and producing more and more homogenous commodity crops that the transnational companies can neatly process, package and ship anywhere and everywhere. In this the latest stage of global, industrial agriculture, farmers are planting genetically modified crops that allow them to work even more land with less effort so that they can go to town to get a job because Monsanto charged them an arm and a leg for the seed, and Cargill pays them less for the crop than it costs to produce. A rather nice arrangement for the corporations.

Although U.S. farmers have been going broke lowering their production costs, Chinese farmers can produce for less. But not cheap enough. That's why Zoellick wants China to scrap any and all programs that protect its farmers. Then the raw materials would cost even less for the traders and processors who export to and import from all countries the world over. Remember, buy low -- even if you have to steal it -- and sell high.

It didn't used to be this way.

Prior to the 1985 farm bill, price supports for farmers were based on the market. They established a price floor to give farmers some bargaining power. These "loan rates" worked much like the minimum wage. The government mandated that the companies buying the farmers' grain or livestock pay them a price at least equal to the cost of producing it. However, the farmers often received more. In those days before rampant corporate concentration, more buyers in the marketplace meant the producer prices were bid upward. The farmers actually made money. Quite a concept.

But things grew progressively worse. They reached the really bad stage in 1996 when Congress hatched Freedom to Farm. It axed the market based price support loan rates and replaced them with taxpayer-subsidized income supports. Now, Cargill and Crew don't have the government telling them they must pay farmers a reasonable price, or "living wage," for the crops. What's more, the constantly merging traders and processors connive and collude to manipulate the prices downward to poverty levels. As a result, farmers often receive far less than their cost of production. The taxpayer is left to make up the difference between what the farmers were paid and a level, or loan rate, determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This can't continue, and our leaders know it. On one side are the taxpayers, most of whom have no idea what's really happening with agriculture, questioning why they're subsidizing farmers. On the other side are countries like Brazil and China rightly insisting that they will not discontinue their domestic farm programs until we do.

At the anointed time it will happen. All that farmers will hear from the distant halls of Congress and the USDA is a faint "sorry." The farm programs will be gone. There'll be no more hush money. Farmers will leave the land in droves. Those who remain will farm, under contract, tens of thousands of acres of patented corn, soybeans, wheat and other commodity crops.

Meanwhile, with their global path largely cleared, Cargill, ConAgra, Monsanto, ADM, and a few others will be grinding down farmers in India, Brazil, China and everywhere. They're always looking to pay farmers a lower price for raw materials. It's a race to the bottom.

There's a word for it: Serfdom.

And to those who think they can just run to Wild Oats or Whole Foods and buy some organic food, think again. The big national and transnational corporations have been and are buying small organic food companies.

What are some of the answers?

First, bring back comprehensive, family farmer friendly policies, including and especially market-based price supports at the federal level. Along with that, all levels of government must encourage local and regional organic food production, processing, distribution and sales.

Second, tear down the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement, and dispense with this Free Trade of the Americas talk. Replace them with nothing or with FAIR trade agreements.

Finally, strip corporations of their "personhood." Return them to their pre-1886 days when they had only privileges, no rights. For more on that, go to:

Editor's note: The next time you hear about the World Bank chipping in the bucks to build or improve infrastructure (e.g., a port or a wider river for barge traffic) in some faraway place, think about who benefits. Transnational agribusinesses that export to and import from the same countries around the world should come to mind.