'The Limits of Tyrants'

"If you want my corn gentlemen, you must meet my quote, plus 5% for the delay!"

"That's outrageous Scrooge, you'll be left with a warehouse stuffed with corn."

"Well, that's my affair, isn't it? Buy the corn someplace else, good day sir."

"Scrooge, a moment. We'll take your corn at the price you quoted yesterday."

"Too late! You wait until tomorrow and it will cost you another 5%!"

"Damn it Scrooge, it's not fair!"

"No, but it's business!"

-- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, CBS-TV, Dec. 22, 1985


Business and fairness have always been rather incompatible perch mates, but in Year 2001 corporations -- which Ambrose Bierce in his Devil's Dictionary defined as those "inglorious devices for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility" -- made not only fairness an obsolete business term, but progressed well on their way to destroying the very concept of economic democracy without which, as Thomas Jefferson so frequently reminded us, we cannot have political democracy.

Not only do these corporations see themselves as impervious to accountability but their responsibility when it comes to the public trust is marginally legitimate if not illicit. Witness how since Sept. 11 we have seen corporate America wrap itself in the flag as means to better fleece the public and its treasury.

Corporate agribusiness is no exception to the rule of violating the public trust as headlines plucked from the past year shows:

• Black Employees, in Lawsuit, Accuse Cargill of Discrimination

• DuPont Convicted of Racketeering in Benlate Case

• Washington is investigating the IBP meatpacking plant after a secretly shot video shows cows kicking while being butchered

• ADM fined $35.3 million in EU price-fixing probe

• Poisoned Plantations: Ex-workers in Nicaraguan banana fields sue US firms over illnesses linked to toxic fumigant

• Groups Sue Smithfield for Hog Pollution

• Tyson Foods indicted: Company, workers charged with conspiracy to smuggle into US.

• Shareholders Sue ConAgra Directors Over Restated Earnings

Even as Congress drew to a close in its last session we saw corporate agribusiness in action on the farm policy and legislative front working furiously in the US Senate with their Republican Party brethren to deny family farm agriculture the means to earn a fair price for what they produce and the ability to produce food that is healthy and safe.

Anyone who doubted Ralph Nader's contention in the 2000 presidential election that the two major political parties in this country were incapable of enacting progressive legislation in the face of corporate opposition to such legislation got a lesson in corporate-dictated politics in witnessing the surrender of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to such politics.

It was at a 1999 news conference, that Harkin declared, "We've got to take this wreck of a ëFreedom to Farm' bill and throw it on the trash heap of history." In November 2001 after capitulating to committee Republicans in a blatant effort to send a bill to the Senate floor, Harkin had a conversion of sorts. "There were positive features of the ëFreedom to Farm Bill,'" said Harkin, "including planting flexibility and increased resources for conservation."

The Des Moines Register's Jane Norman reported that those words prompted open astonishment among Republicans. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and one of the principal architects of the disastrous "Freedom to Farm" legislation clutched his chest in feigned heart failure upon hearing of Harkin's mea culpa.

In reading the concessions made to corporate agribusiness in the Senate Ag Committee's farm bill, one can see that Harkin and many of his Democrat colleagues failed once again to draw a line in the dirt and fight for family farm agriculture.

As Circle, Mont., wheat farmer Helen Waller correctly charges, "It does not address the growing power of corporate agribusiness over our food system, which we are counting on the Senate to do ... Farm policy that establishes a fair price at the market would provide economic security to benefit farmers at lower cost to taxpayers, while establishing food security for America's consumers."

One need only look at the recently released National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) preliminary farm index of prices received in October to see the failure of current farm policy. The NASS farm index of prices received was 95 (based on 1990-92=100), down a record 10 points (9.5%) from the September index.

When compared to the historical base of 1910-1914, the index shows a 66-point decline, becoming the largest month-to-month decrease in recorded history. The previous record one-month decline was 57 points, and occurred between the months of August and September 1973.

A significant downturn in prices for lettuce, milk, soybeans, hogs, corn, broilers, and cattle combined with seasonal shifts in marketing set the stage for the monthly downturn in the index. The seasonal change in the mix of commodities farmers sell often affects the overall index. Overall marketing changes accounted for six points of the 10-point decrease in the October index (1990-92=100).

Fortunately, one Senate Ag committee member with some backbone, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) is expected to introduce soon the Food From Family Farms Act, a broad-based family farm consensus proposal to restore and maintain profitability on America's family farms and ranches while seeking to provide farmers with fair prices paid by those giant corporate agribusiness's that purchase their raw materials.

Basing such farm legislation upon fair prices for farmers rightfully addresses the fundamental problem facing agriculture today, basing such legislation upon income simply relegates it to a societal problem whereby the farmer becomes an indentured servant, the taxpayer pays the bills and their corporate masters reaps the profits.

One would hope and pray that Sen. Harkin, as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and with a wary eye on his 2002 re-election campaign, would publicly and whole-heartedly declare his support for the Food From Family Farms Act when it is introduced on the Senate floor.

It is also time for self-professed family farm organizations like the American Corn Growers Association and the National Farmers Union to stop such patronizing rhetoric as "commending" Harkin "for his leadership in passing a new farm bill" and "the committee for their hard work to develop a much-needed farm law this year," and start holding lawmakers feet to the fire and make them "walk the talk."

While the media, led by the New York Times and Washington Post, once again have mistakenly sought to characterize the Senate farm bill debate as simply a question of who should get and who didn't deserve expensive farm subsidies, corporate agribusiness and its White House minions were busy exploiting -- for their own selfish gain -- the regionalism and commodityism that has historically become such a destructive force in American agriculture.

Clearly the current debate over domestic farm policy needs a proper focus and that focus should be on the perpetrators who are profiting the most from the self-serving policies -- such as the infamous "Freedom to Farm Act" -- of the past, namely corporate agribusiness and specifically the ADMs, Cargills, ConAgras, Tysons, IBPs, Smithfields, Krafts and their ilk. It is time to realize that the buck doesn't stop at the congressperson or the senator's desk, but rather in corporate boardrooms all over America.

The famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass reminds us "find out just what people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong that can be imposed on them." Indeed it is time that family farm agriculture put aside their petty differences like regionalism and commodityism, reject representation by so-called farm organizations that disregard their best interests, and demand that the US Department of Agriculture be refocused to once against work on behalf of agriculture and not simply act as an adjunct to the US Department of Commerce.

Likewise, family farmers need to reacquaint themselves with their rich agrarian populist history as an economic, social and political force and cast their democratic vote not out of some regional or family tradition, but rather for those men and women who are willing to speak truth to power on their behalf.

At the same time family farm agriculture needs to launch an aggressive grass roots educational campaign aimed at the consumers of their products, showing the consuming public how they are putting their own health and safety and that of their children at serious risk if they continue to keep patronizing corporate agribusiness and that by denying farmers and ranchers a fair price for what they produce they are seriously undermining not only the social and environmental fabric of our nation, but our economic well-being as well.

Amidst the welcoming of a new year it would be well to keep in mind a Douglass admonition: "Those who profess favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of the waters. This struggle may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle ... The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."


A.V. Krebs operate the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201; email; website

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