Crisis - Open Forum > Next Story

 Big Ag, Oil and Tobacco Will Kill You For a Profit
 Jane Smiley, USA
 August 20, 2006

In the late eighties, I wrote a novel called A Thousand Acres. Everyone thought it was about incest and "King Lear".

To me, those were plot elements that I was using in service to the theme, which concerned the transformation of the midwestern American landscape from a unique, diverse, and rather fragile natural ecosystem that supported methods of European animal and grain farming imported by German, English, and Scandinavian farmers during the nineteenth century to a denuded and lifeless "food" factory in which a few crops (corn, soybeans, hogs, and beef) and the money that could be made from them pushed every other consideration of human endeavor and biodiversity to the margins, or snuffed them out entirely. My book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and made into a movie. American agriculture got worse.

In the early nineties, I wrote another novel about farming called Moo, a comic novel that took place on the campus of a land grant university. While researching Moo, I discovered BSE, which was only just then (1992) emerging in the UK as a relative of scrapie, a form of brain-wasting disease that occurs in sheep. As far as I know, the references to BSE in Moo were the first to appear in the US.

The characters in Moo discuss the practice of feeding cows, normally vegetarians, the animal byproducts of sheep farming. They are appalled. And it still seems like a no-brainer. If cows eat offal and then people eat cows, a certain proportion of people will become ill with sheep and cow diseases, and, voila, scrapie crossed two species barriers -- to cows and to humans -- because the agriculture corporations either didn't know what they were doing or didn't care. Nevertheless, American agriculture got worse.

After I left Iowa and started writing about other things, the ag companies (according to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and the film "The Future of Food"), continued to perpetrate vicious idiocies, and to do so in a more and more aggressive manner, challenging the rights, and the abilities, of people in all parts of the world to have any say in the nature and composition of the food we put into our bodies. They have done so, as far as I can tell, solely for profit. They have exhibited greed that crosses over from mere selfish immoral criminality into actual insanity.

Here's an example. By the time I was writing A Thousand Acres, it had been apparent for some twenty-five or thirty years that insecticides and herbicides were contaminating the landscape and the water supply, killing off wildlife, destroying fertility in males and females of all species, and causing disease in the farmers themselves and their families. The common sense solution to this increasing problem would have been to acknowledge the destructive power of these unnatural chemicals, and to have shifted American agriculture away from their use.

The ag companies, however, preferred to remake the ecosystem so that farmers would use more chemicals rather than fewer; they genetically modified seed to make it resistant to an herbicide, Roundup, that when applied would destroy every living plant around it except the proprietary seed plants also owned by the corporation that formulated Roundup.

This is exactly analogous to an act of war against the natural ecosystem. It produced acts of war against the farmers, too, because Monsanto aggressively pursued royalty payments from anyone and everyone who had those genetically modified plants in their fields, no matter how they got there, and even if the farmer didn't want them there. Let's say vandals invade your house, eat all your food, drink all your liquor, and make a terrible mess. After they burn the house down, they send you a bill, and sue you if you don't pay it. And the judge backs them up. That is what Monsanto has done to the farmer, and what it is doing to the ecosystem.

Still, it's a no-brainer. If chemicals are killing us and our world, we stop manufacturing the chemicals, unless we are insanely greedy and demonically possessed by the idea that every single element of life, every seed and bit of DNA can and must be owned by someone. Here's what the big ag companies want to do -- they want to own and contaminate the entire gene pool of all the world's food resources for their own profit and without the knowledge or input of anyone who will actually be eating the food or living in the world they create. So far, the French and the Japanese and some other nations are standing firm, but the US government, our government, your government, is trying to enforce the will of the big ag companies.

With regard to ag policy, Clinton and Gore were bad, but Bush and Cheney are infinitely worse. Let's call a spade a spade here. By means of corrupting the Congress and the Executive and the Judiciary branches of our government, the ag companies have changed the rules, and deregulated themselves. They have given their crimes against humanity technical legality, but they are still crimes against humanity (and, in fact, against the entire natural world).

The model, of course, is big tobacco. As was reaffirmed again this past week, big tobacco knew fifty years ago that there was nothing beneficial about their product. Tobacco is a bad plant, a bad industry, and a bad product. Faced with the truth, big tobacco changed their advertising , stonewalled, and lied in order to maintain profits. What big ag did not learn from the experiences of big tobacco was to first, do no harm. Rather, big ag learned to hide the harm it is doing and befuddle the lines of liability, as well as to force deregulation, to buy off the politicians and the researchers, and to present the world with a genetic fait accompli, a crime and a sin that cannot be undone. Sort of like the Iraq war.

Everyone knows at this point that Halliburton (that is, big war) and big oil were the prime movers in instigating the war in Iraq through their man Cheney and their poodle, Bush. And, of course, Halliburton and the other war industries and Exxon and the other oil companies have been the only ones to profit from the Iraq war. They have not sent members of their own families to fight; they have suffered no bombings of their own plants or their own homes. They thought they had a fool-proof plan for profits, and indeed, they did. We, the taxpayers, have paid for their adventure with money and lives. They have not gotten the Iraqi oil (let's say plan A), but they have driven up prices and profits (plan B). The president of Exxon is the happiest old man in the world, I am sure.

Big ag, big tobacco, big war, big oil, and their enablers on Wall Street always congratulate themselves on "wealth creation". This is what the "free market" does -- it takes something that was supposedly worthless, like mountaintops in West Virginia or corn varieties in Mexico or oil deposits in Alaska, and gives them "value".

But this is a fiction. The model here is big water. The earth abounds in rivers and lakes. Wealthy water companies (the water rights in my river are owned by a company in England that is now in trouble for mismanaging their own Thames) go to other countries and buy or take the water rights of those people and then sell them back to those very people at a price they can hardly afford.

This is "wealth creation" -- creating wealth for stockholders, even though they already have more wealth than they know what to do with, by stealing the resources of the poor and the powerless. The "free market" always talks about buying low and selling high, but it specializes in theft. And, as an alternative, if the "wealth creators" cannot use what you own, say a hardy seed that works well for your ecosystem, they will render it useless so that you will have to buy their seed just to live.

Given what these big corporations routinely do, we have to ask, are they filled and peopled from top to bottom by ruthless monsters who care nothing about others, and also nothing about the world that we live in? Are these CEOs and CFOs and COOs and managers and researchers and stockholders so beyond human that, let's say, the deaths in Iraq and the destitution of the farmers and the tumors and allergies and obesities of children, and the melting of the Greenland ice cap and the shifting of the Gulf Stream are, to them, just the cost of doing business? Or are they just beyond stupid and blind, so that they, alone among humans, have no understanding of the interconnectedness of all natural systems?

One thing you have to ask yourself, faced with American corporate culture, is, what is it about Americans, in particular, that makes them so indifferent to consequences, especially the consequence of doing harm to others, over and over and over? Why did those big tobacco folks persist, for fifty years, in poisoning their customers and attempting to get more customers? Was that what Jesus told them to do?

I bring up Jesus because many, if not most of these companies are headquartered in red states, states proud of their Christian heritage. Big tobacco is (or used to be) located in the south, big oil in Texas, big ag in St. Louis, Minnesota, and Iowa. If Christianity abounds in these states, and people working in these corporations, and running them, are professing Christians, and these people give themselves a license to steal and destroy every day of the year, what does that say about Christianity? Let me tell you. It says that Christianity, especially American Christianity, is the religion of death. Or it says that corporate culture is one thing and religious belief is another, and the religious side is powerless to confront any of the deadly sins perpetrated by the corporate side. But either way, American corporations are set up, not to "create wealth", but to plunder the wealth of everyone not powerful enough to stop them. And the rest of the world understands this. Why do they hate us, again? Oh, yeah. Our values.

When George Bush was elected, the big industries breathed a happy sigh. Finally, they had a "CEO president". The implication of that phrase was that Bush would know how to run the company, to reduce labor costs and outsource various services. The fact was that neither Bush nor Cheney had ever actually succeeded in business, but that was a detail. Failures though they were, they were steeped in corporate ways of thinking, and they owed a lot to big oil, big war, and big ag. They showed immediately that they knew how to do business in the corporate way by cheating in the 2000 election (let's call this "deregulating themselves and their governing behaviors"). This was the true mark of a "CEO President" -- do what you can get away with, dare the others to stop you, act always as a predator rather than as a custodian of the common good, because according to theorists of the "free market", there is no common good. Thank you, Milton Friedman. And it doesn't matter how well or poorly they run the government. As they drive it into the ground, they are still acting as good CEOs in the American tradition, preparing their own golden parachutes, sticking it to the suckers (customers, suppliers, stockholders, citizens, soldiers), and treating the property of the corporation (for example the US Army) as their own private stock.

Deregulation has made this debacle.

This is what I remember about the 1980 election. When I got up the morning after and found out the result, I stood in front of my television and wept. I was right to do so. Ronald Reagan busied himself deregulating everything he could -- the airlines, the savings and loans, the protections of consumers and workers, health care and the health of the nation itself, the industries that people relied upon for jobs. Babies, children, old folks, farm animals, you name it, he made their lives worse. Possessed of a nice ranch of his own, he assigned James Watt to wreck the environment for everyone else. And he just kept smiling. Americans loved it. He died a couple of years ago with the reputation of a saint. Why would that be? Well, he made Americans proud of themselves again, but for what? Profligate waste? Ignoring every sign that the era of big oil would someday come to an end? Accelerated destruction of natural resources for the sake of Conspicuous consumption? An increase in the number of homeless people in big American cities? Worthless fiddling in the concerns of other nations, like Nicaragua? Is it the US that gives corporations a bad name, or corporations that give the US a bad name? In 1980, the Republicans invited the corporate elite to have it their way. The world we have now, violent and selfish and brutal, contaminated and in danger of environmental collapse, is the world they made, both by actually dismantling the regulatory environment and by letting powerful people get in the habit of thinking that doing whatever they felt like, no matter how grossly harmful, was their right and their privilege.

American corporations always defend their activities by pointing to how innovative they are. This is especially galling when the food companies and the ag companies do it, because they have no good innovations to offer and never have. Olestra? Margarine? Dr. Pepper? GM foods? Roundup? Roundup Ready seed? Salty, fatty fast foods that have ruined the health of millions of Americans? High fructose corn syrup? Chickens raised in cruel and inhuman conditions, contaminated with E. coli and other bacteria? Rice carrying carotene supposedly invented to help starving children, except that children below a certain percentage of body fat can't metabolize the carotene? Whoops! A nice bowl of regular old brown rice and some tofu would work better, but no ag company can figure out how to own all of it. Or a piece of pumpernickel bread and some aged cheddar. Since humans know how to feed themselves, the only thing that the ag companies can do is introduce deceptively marketed products and take for themselves money that might have gone to feeding someone. Oh, yeah, and they can irrevocably change the world so that all biodiversity is reduced and destroyed. Once again, you've got to ask, are they inhumanly evil or inhumanly short-sighted? Oh, well. They are always wrapping themselves in the flag, so it must be the American way.

And it is. American corporations are uniquely free to do business in an irresponsible manner because of what you might call a typo in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which uses the word "person" without defining it as a human being. Since then, corporations have repeatedly interpreted their personhood in their own favor -- they get to have the rights that humans have, such as free political speech (bribing candidates with contributions), but none of the consequences (mortality, moral reciprocity, full liability for bad actions). The result is all around us and threatens to destroy us.

A hundred years ago, the rapaciousness of the business elite spawned a century of war and social conflict. The power of Socialism and Marxism was in the rage people feel when their means are stolen from them, when they are duped and fooled and used as cannon fodder by people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, when the world they live in grows more and more inhuman and self-evidently stupid. That rage is growing now. Anarchists have been replaced by suicide bombers. Marxists have been replaced by Islamicists and lefty bloggers. But, of course Bush and Cheney and the capitalists have empowered their own opposition because the human pattern is the same. The war machine, as in Lebanon (epitomized by aerial destruction) is just as clumsy as it ever was. You cannot torment and injure and murder and disfigure people into liking or agreeing with you, only into going underground while they prepare their revenge. You cannot treat people, even people who don't speak your language or dress like you, as suckers and babies (as in, taking candy from a baby). The average person knows this, but CEOs and CEO Presidents apparently do not.

The fact is, the day Ronald Reagan was elected and the corporations decided to roll back the regulations that limited their power, greed, and egomania was the day they doomed themselves and all of us, because it was the day they began living the lie that there are no consequences to corporate activities. By deregulating themselves, they made sure only that the consequences of their misguided policies would be bigger -- global climate change rather than higher gas prices, contaminated gene pools rather than lower profits from pesticides, global famine rather than localized corn blight, tens of thousands dead in Iraq rather than higher R and D costs, the death of the Ford motor company rather than a shift to less profitable, more fuel efficient cars.

The list is endless. And their defense of what they do gets harsher and more shrill. We are given to understand that if they don't have their way at this point, conflagration in the middle east -- war with Iran, possibly nuclear -- will result. What kind of person plans such a thing? Inhumanly callous or inhumanly stupid? We have our answer -- a CEO President, someone who epitomises both qualities.

Regulation was good because it rationalized not only business activity and human governance, but also because it rationalized the way the business elite saw themselves. It did not simply confront power with power, as Marxism did; it took details into consideration and broke up the huge gamble that is capitalism into a plethora of smaller gambles with perhaps fewer profits but also fewer consequences.

You may have bought a piece of swampland in Florida, thinking you could develop it, and subsequent understanding of the ecosystem may have lowered the value of your particular piece of property. Too bad you had to eat that investment and come up with some other use for your acquisition, but your business failure is not a reason to destroy the Everglades. Too bad you put your R and D into SUVs, but that is not a reason to destroy Iraq, endanger Israel, and bomb Iran.

Of course there are less predatory corporations than big ag, big oil, big war, and big tobacco -- Costco comes to mind, and, lately, even Walmart. As a retail corporation, Walmart is sensitive, at least on the surface, to appearances and to the opinions of customers. Monsanto, whose customers are a captive base of farmers, so far thinks it can suppress or ignore the truth about what it does.

As always, it is those who most dislike regulation who need it. Traditional wisdom and common sense are correct -- people who are primarily interested in power and money are the very ones who can least be trusted. We can assume that Genghis Khan, for example, would have hated regulation. But George W. Bush is not Genghis Khan, at least not so far. We should start by regulating him and go on from there to regulating everyone else who shows indifference to the welfare of the world that we all share.

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous books, including Horse Heaven and The Greenlanders. This piece first appeared in on Aug. 20, 2006.