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The occupying force of agribusiness

By Jim French
Prairie Writers Circle

(Saturday, May 10, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- As the military conflict in Iraq drew to a close, some very big American corporate players entered the scene. This should worry us.

First came Vice President Dick Cheney's old company, Halliburton, which won a no-bid federal contract to restore Iraq's oil industry. Then came Bechtel, which in a secret, limited competition won a fat contract to help rebuild the country.

Now, in the person of Dan Amstutz, multinational commodity interests have moved into the Fertile Crescent. Amstutz, newly appointed senior ministry adviser for agriculture in Iraq, has a career that extends from trade negotiator in the Reagan era to corporate executive for huge grain exporter Cargill to private consultant advocating free trade in agriculture.

In a recent phone teleconference aired from Kuwait, Amstutz said that by helping Iraq make the "transition to the market economy, we can see health returning to agriculture and incentives to employ good farming practices and modern techniques." He also noted that the sanctions imposed on Iraq over the past decade have left its farmers "short of spare parts, fertilizer and pesticides."

In these brief comments alone, American citizens and taxpayers as well as Iraqi citizens should start to feel alarm.

Over the past 40 years of American agriculture based on increasing production and export-based policies, farmer numbers have decreased from around 20 percent to less than 2 percent of the population. In that same time, University of Minnesota economist Richard Levins has shown, net farm income remained flat while gross farm income increased substantially. In fact, over the past two years net farm income would be in the red without government subsidies.

Fred Kirschenmann, of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, has pointed out that the increase in gross income has been absorbed by the marketing, processing and input sectors: fertilizer, trucking, packaging and equipment. For farmers this means a faster and faster treadmill of expansion to keep up with expenses and technology.

Who wins in this scenario? Over the past decade, U.S. farm policies have paid farmers for production while farm exports have steadily decreased. Where has this money gone? Not into net farm income, but into the pockets of input purveyors like Monsanto and Koch Industries, and into the profits of marketers, handlers and corporate giants like Cargill and ADM.

Is this what the American public wants when it spends tax money for farm programs in the United States? And is this how we want our tax money spent in Iraq for agricultural development?

Instead of promoting a system that will impoverish Iraqi agriculture and enrich corporate interests, we should focus first on the basic human needs of the nation. Iraq has some rich agricultural resources that could be devoted to diverse farms growing healthful food to feed the hungry -- not with the paper dollars of the marketplace, but with real grains, fruits and vegetables.

Secondly, agricultural advisers should not come out of the self-serving business and corporate world. Instead, the United States should look to agencies like its Peace Corps, which has a history of helping communities and nations develop self-reliant and sustainable agriculture.

In his teleconference, Amstutz also spoke about the potential export market that Iraq represented for animal feeds, and for food. Again the enticement for production arises. And again, we should remember who really reaps the harvest. While U.S. and worldwide farm profits continue to drop, exporter Cargill posted over $241 million in profits in the first three quarters of its 2003 fiscal year, up $90 million dollars from the previous year.

Is it any wonder that Kevin Watkins, policy director of the international aid organization Oxfam, calls the Amstutz appointment comparable to "putting Saddam Hussein in the chair of a human rights commission"?

People who value agriculture, democracy and sustainable development must call for a change. We did not enter the Iraqi arena to be occupiers who replace one system of tyranny with another.


Jim French, a farmer and rancher, is communications specialist for the Kansas Rural Center. He is a member of the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.