Guest blogged by Ernest A. Canning
"You've got a small number of multinational corporations that control the entire food system from seed to the supermarket. This isn't just about what we're allowed to eat. This is about what we're allowed to say; what we're allowed to know. It's not just our health at risk...They have managed to make it against the law to criticize their products. There is an effort to make it illegal to publish a photo of any industrial food operation." - Food, Inc. narration.
We hear it constantly from Republicans; an ideological mantra to the effect that government, especially government programs that would place the interests of public health, safety, and equality above the profits and power of those who already have too much of both, threatens our liberties.
Perhaps in a manner even more successful than Michael Moore's very powerful presentations in Sicko! and in Capitalism: A Love Story, Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser, in their Academy Award nominated documentary feature Food, Inc. (trailer posted at end of article), expose the lie behind the myth that so-called "free markets" make us free....
Food, Inc. on public health and ecology
While this piece is intended to cover the tyranny inflicted by a corporate controlled economy, one suspects that most in Food, Inc.'s audience will find the film to be a real eye opener when it comes to the dangers posed by what Kenner and Schlosser describe as food-producing "factories," or what is described in the film's "press kit" [PDF] as "the Orwellian underbelly that's been deliberately hidden from the American consumer."
The film takes the audience to the giant holding pens, formally known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where corn-fed cattle stand knee deep in their own manure; to sheds, half as long as football fields, where thousands of chickens, bio-engineered to grow so rapidly and large that they are incapable of taking more than a step or two before falling flat on a floor laden with their feces; chickens kept in the dark not to produce a better product but to make them more docile when they are rounded up for slaughter. (In the must-see, deleted scenes we find the mother of a factory chicken farmer who has to keep the windows of her home closed to fend off the noxious odors from the nearby chicken sheds; can't eat outside because she and her husband would be swarmed with flies).
"If you can grow a chicken in 49 days, why would you want one you gotta grow in three months?" asks one of the corporate-controlled farmers interviewed in the film.
In a brilliant stroke, Kenner and Schlausser provide stark contrast to the nightmares of factory farming by taking their audience to Polyface Farms where we meet Joel Salatin, the organic farm's owner who possesses an extraordinary level of country good sense, and who has no taste for corporate greed. There we see cows grazing on grass in an open pasture, while healthy chickens roam about the barnyard.
The CAFOs and the mass produced chicken operations are designed not to improve quality but to maximize profits. The decisions that affect the daily operations of the CAFOs are not made by farmers, but by corporate titans sitting in board rooms in cities sometimes thousands of miles away.
Unfortunately, the corporate engineers, so good at efficiency of mass production, ignored a basic fact of evolutionary biology. Cattle evolved as a grass eating animal. The corn they are fed produces dangerous, potentially lethal, strains of E-coli bacteria which, according to the film's press kit, "sickens roughly 73,000 Americans annually. And because of the high proliferation of processed foods derived from corn, Americans are facing epidemic levels of diabetes among adults and alarming increases in obesity, especially among children."
While corn remains a cheap source of feed, thanks to heavy subsidies paid by the U.S. government to these giant agricultural conglomerates (your tax dollars at work), the real cost, especially to the environment, is substantial. Corn must be transported in trucks and trains, and the huge, toxic amounts of manure must be carted away, adding to consumption of fossil fuels and our global climate change footprint.
Meanwhile, Salitin points to his cattle grazing on open land; notes that they are mowing and fertilizing the grass all at the same time --- an entire, ecologically efficient system captured in a single frame. (In the deleted scenes, Salitin explains the ecologically efficient, symbiotic relationship between the multiple strains of grass he has never had to plant or replant, his cattle, chickens, and pigs, which naturally convert manure into soil enriching compost).
Schlosser asserts that CAFO cattle will experience a more than 80% reduction in E-coli if they are simply taken out to pasture five days prior to their slaughter. Yet the corporate titans, according to Food, Inc., persist on keeping the cattle in the CAFO until they are moved off to be slaughtered. They show carcasses, streaked with excrement, on hooks leading into slaughterhouses. The corporate titans apparently believe it more efficient to fend off infection by bathing the butchered meat in ammonia and ammonia hydroxide.
Subsidies and NAFTA's dirty little secret
When they were first introduced during the early days of the New Deal, farm subsidies were intended to stabilize prices in order to offset the extraordinary low prices brought on by over-production and by the Great Depression; to keep farmers on their farms and in their homes.
Today, it would be fair to say that farm subsidies, like Wall Street bailouts, flow to those who need them the least.
In Thieves in High Places, Jim Hightower provides the classic example --- billionaire stockbroker Charles R. Schwab; the proud owner of Casa de Patos, "1,500 acres of picturesque wetlands in Northern California." Schwab grows rice on the land, not for harvesting purposes but because the rice attracts ducks. Schwab is one of those rich folks who likes to invite friends and clients to go duck hunting. (Careful you don't invite Dick Cheney, Mr. Schwab.)
So Schwab has no intent to harvest the rice, but that doesn't prevent this man with an estimated $4.7 billion net worth from collecting $500,000/year in federal farm subsidies because he does not market the rice.
Hightower laments, "Sadly, it's legal, and it's a fine upstanding example of what George [W. Bush] and his base like to call 'entrepreneurship.'"
As revealed by Jeff Faux in The Global Class War, and as touched upon in Food, Inc., with the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), some of the wealthiest citizens of this country not only gorged themselves at the public trough by way of subsidies, but parlayed this into a means to engage in unfair competition in Mexico, selling corn at well below the cost of production. This drove nearly 1.5 million Mexican farmers off the land, creating a massive migration to Mexico's cities.
Faux asserts this created an overabundance of cheap labor in the Northern Mexico cities which was exploited by U.S. manufacturers, who saw a golden opportunity to dispose of their unionized U.S. workers, in what amounted to the first step in the wholesale outsourcing of almost everything made in the U.S., save military weapons, first south to Mexico and then to China, India, and and other parts east --- short-term greed with devastating long-term economic consequences.
But the NAFTA scheme entailed much more than Ross Perot's ominous warning during the 1992 Presidential debates of a "giant sucking sound of jobs headed South." As Kenner and Schlosser reveal in Food, Inc., when the U.S.-subsidized corn drove Mexican farmers off their land, it created a golden opportunity for the meat packing industry to shift to cheap labor even while remaining in the U.S.. American meat packers actively recruited the displaced Mexican farmers, drawing the undocumented into an increasingly consolidated U.S. meat packing industry --- an industry which once paid union wages in the 1950s that were on par with the middle class wages in the auto industry.
As a result, the job of meat packing was set back both in terms of economics and safety to levels not seen since Roosevelt --- Teddy Roosevelt that is.
From the standpoint of the industrial titans at the top of the U.S. food chain, this maneuver not only provided a ready source of cheap, exploitable labor but came with the added benefit that these recruited Mexican economic refugees could be scapegoated for the misfortunes of the American middle class whose real demise was occasioned when President Bill Clinton joined with Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan to ram NAFTA through on the fast track.
Curiously, Clinton recently apologized for his role in forcing other countries to accept U.S. agricultural products at the expense of their own agricultural systems, which he admitted, in the case of Haiti, destroyed that impoverished nation's self sufficiency by eliminating its ability to produce rice.
Clinton conceded that U.S. agricultural policies since 1981 (the year Reagan took office) not only destroyed local economies but undermined their culture and "fabric of life." While describing the consequences he now has to "live with every day," the apology from the former President and now Special Envoy to Haiti came with a positive spin that U.S. policy makers were simply trying to "relieve" these nations of the "burden" of food production so they could "leap into the industrial era." Clinton's spin ignores the profits, subsidies, and monopoly power which flowed to the wealthy CEOs and investors at the top of the corporate U.S. food producing industry.
Democracy Now's Juan Gonzales described the concessions as the former President having, in large measure, renounced NAFTA.
Making Monsanto's monopoly
In a 2005 article published in the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, Haley Stein wrote:
All that changed on Dec. 10, 2001, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 6-2 decision which insured that Monsanto and other companies holding patent rights on genetically modified seeds could prevent farmers from saving, replanting, or selling their genetically-modified seeds.
In Food, Inc., Kenner and Schlosser note that the decision was written by Justice Clarence Thomas who, as it turns out, had previously served as Monsanto's attorney.
While there are many occasions on numerous issues that I would find fault with the Federalist Society-connected Clarence Thomas, this would not be one of them. The decision appears to be a relatively routine instance of statutory interpretation. The problem with the direction of intellectual property law in this instance is more appropriately attributed to the impact of corporate lobbyists and money in Congress and the revolving door between the private sector and government.
Congress has become a millionaire's club which spends its time crafting legislation on behalf of billionaires --- that is, when it doesn't simply sit back and permit K-Street lobbyists to draft legislation for members of Congress to simply introduce and vote into law.
In his book, Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush, Jim Hightower noted perhaps the classic case of how the very agencies that are designed to regulate corporate industries actually work on their behalf.
During the reign of the Bush/Cheney cabal, an occasion arose in which Monsanto was required to submit a report to the FDA in order to demonstrate the safety of placing its artificial growth hormone in milk.* It assigned the task of preparing a report to one of its leading researchers, Margaret Miller.
So far, nothing extraordinary.
After preparing the report, Miller was hired by the FDA, which then assigned her the daunting task of reviewing her own report. Damned if she wasn't persuaded. Of course, there was still the question of whether Monsanto's milk would require a warning label, a task that was then assigned to another FDA official, Mark Taylor, who just happened to be a former Monsanto lobbyist, as had been Linda Fisher, whom Bush appointed as the deputy administrator of the EPA.**
In 1996, only 2% of the soybeans harvested in the U.S. contained Monsanto's patented genes.*** By 2008, Monsanto genes could be found in more than 90% of the U.S. soybean crop.
This extraordinary rise to market dominance did not occur by chance. As revealed by Food, Inc., Monsanto, which is well within its rights to do so (based on the corporate-friendly laws which allow it), aggressively defends its patent rights against any and all farmers it believes intentionally violated them. However, where the film implied that this would include farmers whose fields were infected by airborne patented seeds from neighboring fields, Monsanto, which declined to be interviewed for the film, posted on line that it does not "exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented traits are present in farmers' fields as a result of inadvertent means." (Monsanto's on-line post does not explain what would constitute "trace amounts.")
On March 13, the Los Angeles Times reported that "U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and a team of top federal officials on Friday pledged a sweeping examination of alleged monopolistic practices in the food sector, and promised to bust those who violate antitrust laws." The article followed two earlier articles that appeared in the Los Angeles Times and in The New York Times referencing anti-trust concerns pertaining to Monsanto's market share and a sudden rise in seed prices.
* - The UK's Daily Mail recently reported that a study, performed by French researcher Dr Gilles-Eric Seralini, suggested that "animals fed on three strains of [Monsanto's] genetically modified maize...suffered signs of organ damage after just three months...Monsanto claimed the analysis of its data was 'based on faulty analytical methods and reasoning, and does not call into question the safety findings for these products.'"
** - The end of the Bush/Cheney cabal did not shut the revolving door between government and this sector of the food production "industry." To the contrary, on April 1, 2010, Democracy Now reported that, despite widespread opposition from "over eighty environmental, family farm and consumer advocacy organizations," President Obama named Islam Siddiqui, "a former vice president and lobbyist at CropLife America, a group of the major industrial players in the pesticide industry, including Syngenta, Monsanto, and Dow Chemical," as "the US Trade Representative's Chief Agricultural Negotiator."
*** - Intellectual property issues pertaining to patented genes has spawned an entire biotechnology industry that goes well beyond food production. On March 31 The New York Times reported that a federal judge invalidated patents on two breast cancer genes because the isolated DNA "is not markedly different from native DNA as it exists in nature."
According to an email received from ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, the ACLU, along with the Public Patent Foundation, brought the lawsuit in order to challenge a 20 year practice of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to provide patents which provide individuals, corporations, and universities with the exclusive right "to test, study, or even look at" specific human genes. The ACLU contended the "practice violates patent law as well as the public's First Amendment rights, which protect the free exchange of ideas and information."
Myriad Genetics, which held the patents, has promised an appeal.
Food, Inc. covered the lawsuit brought by Monsanto against Moe Parr, who cleans seed from the most recent harvest using machinery that dates back to the 19th Century, providing seed for the next year's crop. Monsanto alleged that some of the seeds Parr cleaned contained Monsanto's patented genes. In its online response to the movie, Monsanto said it sued Parr only after years of "other efforts" to resolve the issue.
Monsanto points to an injunction obtained by way of the case resolution that prevents Parr from cleaning Monsanto seed. What it does not mention is the gross disparity between the modest income of these rural Americans and a huge corporation with teams of attorneys at its disposal; attorneys who humiliated Parr by subpoenaing his bank records and going through every transaction with every farmer mentioned in the account.
Yes, Monsanto is right. It was well within its legal rights to aggressively defend its patents --- the film also mentions teams of investigators spying on farmers. But that right doesn't negate a vital issue --- that the manipulation of the legislative process by members of Congress seeking to please corporate America produced intellectual property laws that destroyed what had been a standard farming practice for a thousand years. Congress gave this huge corporation extraordinary control over the lives of previously independent, honest, hard-working farmers --- farmers who are finding it increasingly difficult to find seed that has not been contaminated with the Monsanto patented gene.
The tyranny of corporate economic control can indeed be found in Monsanto's ability to legally intimidate these hard working farmers and their seed cleaner, Moe Parr.
As denoted in Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, these cases are but a microcosm of the exploitation and extension of oppressive corporate power over the lives of ordinary citizens occasioned by laws that facilitate the privatization of the commons --- in this case seeds --- though, one suspects that if corporations could come up with a way to patent the air we breathe, they'd privatize it, then sue us for breaking their patent if we didn't pay for it.
Liberty lost to corporate power
In an earlier segment, Food, Inc. reveals a relationship between farmers whose contracts to produce chickens are all too reminiscent to those of serfs and masters of Medieval times. The cost of erecting two of the large buildings where the chickens are kept in the dark is approximately $500,000. The company demands that the farmer provide upgrades, at the risk of loss of the farmer's contract. After all that the farmer earns about $18,000/year --- a sum that insures the farmer can never get out from under the debt.
Food, Inc. begins with a mother whose previously healthy toddler, Kevin, died just twelve days after a food related E-coli infection. It includes her tireless, but unsuccessful efforts to get Congress to pass "Kevin's law," reversing a court decision that ruled the FDA has no authority to shut down a factory farm/meat packer no matter how many times they ship contaminated meat. Yet this same mother, fearful of financial ruin should she be sued, refused to make any comment about the product she believes had killed her son.
We're supposed to have a First Amendment guaranteeing free speech as a fundamental right, but what good is that "legal" right if corporate wealth can terrorize a victim into silence?
As Bill Moyers observed in Moyers on America, "America was not meant to be a country where the winner takes all." The principles upon which this nation was founded were reflected in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution which states our government was formed "to promote the general Welfare."
An oppressive, greed-based society, in which nearly 45,000 citizens die annually simply because they cannot afford health insurance; where 73,000 Americans are annually infected with potentially lethal bacteria, yet are deprived of the right to so much as speak out, let alone investigate and prosecute those responsible, bears no resemblance whatsoever to the egalitarian principles espoused by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence [emphasis added]:
Food, Inc. provides a poignant example of how a corporate-controlled economy endangers our lives, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness.
Ernest A. Canning has been an active member of the California state bar since 1977. Mr. Canning has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science as well as a juris doctor. He is also a Vietnam vet (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968).