Monsanto and America: How the Story of an Agribusiness Giant Tells the Story of a Nation

Henno Alter






A wave of publicity and anger has arisen in recent years against St. Louis based agribusiness behemoth Monsanto. The public concern has largely been focused on rising obesity, the consolidation of farmland and the growing disconnect between Americans and the food we eat. Although these issues are of great importance, one cannot help but be reminded of the story of the blind men and the elephant. Three blind men cannot manage to identify an elephant in front of them, because they are only able to feel the body part directly in front of them and are unable to perceive the entire creature that stand before them.

The causes and effects of the Monsanto usurpation of the American food production system and the disastrous consequences for our health, our planet and our culture, reflect the larger trend of financialization of the American economy and the subsequent polarization of wealth.

This trajectory has been the defining characteristic of our national narrative over the past forty years. The industrialization of food production in fact involves such the seemingly disparate abuses of corporate power as the 2011 commodity price bubble and America’s failed war on drugs.

For those who are unaware of this corporation, which has sparked this particular liberal outrage du jour, Monsanto was the first company to have genetically engineered crops, virtually creating the modern culinary world. But how did we ended up here with a desolate dystopian food landscape, in which flashy packaging hides the utter lack of variety, tasteless tomatoes are caught somewhere between white and red, though not exactly pink, and kids can be seen drinking from kegs of Mountain Dew pushed around on hand trucks? The answers are a familiar to those willing to ask the right questions.

In response to the collapse of commodity prices during the great depression, farmers were paid to leave part of their land uncultivated prices stabilized and farmers were able to earn a decent living wage. In the 1970s, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz (perhaps the best named American politician until he was overtaken by Dick Army) radically changed the system, subsidizing large quantities of corn in order to incentivize maximum crop output. Suddenly farmers were told to plant "Fence-post to fence-post" and corn prices plummeted. The vast majority of farmers in the middle of the country were unable to meet the enormous yields required to avoid being washed down shit’s creek, just like the fertilizer that was beginning to poison the waterways of middle America in rain runoff. As a result of this shift, “commodity corn” now completely dominates Midwestern farmland. This virtually inedible mutant plant is produced to be broken down into its composite chemicals to make the likes-- cheap sweeteners and fatty foods.

Is it any surprise that we now live in a country where it’s hard to find a family at Six Flags that doesn’t look like the offensive line of the 1982 Pittsburgh Steelers?

Should we be shocked that the Center for Disease Control projects that 1 out of 3 adults will have diabetes by 2050 and 1 out of 2 people of color? Of course not, because who is most affected by a system where subsidies fuel the large-scale production of cheap, unhealthy food products? Disproportionately, Americans with the lowest income.

Sure, healthy food in the US is now more widely available now, but try sending a mother and father of four into Whole Foods with only their disability check, or food stamps. By subsidizing corn to be transformed into Doritos, Twinkies, cow feed (corn was never meant to be consumed by cows, and has seriously decreased the quality, nutrition and safety of beef) it is insured that this plentiful cornucopia of junk food will be consumed mostly by poor people. The subsidies could go to healthy food, but that could result in catastrophe where America's poor have an equal chance to live a healthy and maybe even a prosperous life.

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The 1970's saw the beginning of the neo-con takeover of American politics, and not coincidentally, the divide between rich and poor began to balloon to the previously inconceivable proportions of today. The sapling of inequality was just begun to sprout, over time it would grow into the giant red wood we see today spreading its branches up the collective ass of the American lower classes. Monsanto and the Farm Bill fit perfectly into this political landscape. The United Farm Workers of America, led by Ceasar Chavez and Larry Itligong, brought the plight of American agricultural workers to the attention of the public and fought for the rights of these farmers. This was okay when it seemed nothing more than a bunch of country bumpkins and Mexicans hootin' and hollerin' about grapes, but God forbid they should try to team up with unions in urban areas, for that could present a challenge to good old American values of wealth consolidation. The United Farm Workers joined forces with the AFL-CIO just one year before Butz orchestrated the sale of the U.S. grain reserve to the Soviet Union, which caused a sharp increase in the price of U.S. grain and eliminated the price stabilization policies that allowed small farmers to maintain their livelihoods. Many small farmers were pushed off the land because they could not compete with the emerging consolidated farms who could take advantage of new incentives for maximized yields. The destruction of small farmers goes hand in hand with other "Union Busting" efforts of the era and the embrace of a globalized economy that destroyed much of the U.S. manufacturing sector and opened the door to financial institutions to reap huge profits while American workers suffered.

As with most rapid increases in prices of a commodity speculation on agricultural futures boomed and a price bubble began to form. As agricultural production became incorporated into the financialized economy that would come to define the American marketplace, the money being pumped into farming sector paved the way for agribusiness to start buying out small farmers. Thus began the process of farmland consolidation. When the bubble for grain predictably burst in the early 1980's, the remaining small farms in America’s heartland all but disappeared as smaller operations could not withstand the precipitous drop in prices. The fall in grain prices also brought about the transition to commodity corn as America’s main agricultural product.

This commodity corn is a form of corn that is virtually inedible but is used to produce everything from animal feed and high fructose corn syrup to cosmetics. Huge government subsidies were given to large producers of this new crop.


When examining the bubble of the 1980-81 it is fairly easy to find parallels with the financial crisis of 2008. One of the causes for the collapse of the housing bubble was that as income inequalities rose to unprecedented levels, the drop in the standard of living for the average American was masked by dangerous levels of debt being accumulated by home owners. The newly clichéd villains know as the 1% further pushed wealth consolidation by capitalizing on this new demand for debt by aggregating mortgages to be bundled into CDOs and sold to investors. You can pick up from here: people were unable to pay off their mortgages, the CDOs turned out to be toxic. We all know that story: the economy collapsed. That is, until the banks were bailed out. Leading up to the fall of the grain bubble of the early 80s, farmers were also forced to incur massive amounts of debt to meet the large capital requirements to farm high grain yields now being incentivized. Just as low interest rates were being offered to potential home-buyers during the housing bubble leading to artificially high housing prices, low interest rates were being offered to farmers throughout the 1970's. By 1980, however the pressures of the international market increased and crop prices decreased and farm value fell by almost 60% between 1981 and 1985. More small farmers lost their farms, paving the way for large agribusiness giants such as Monsanto, whose massive production operations could not only affect world prices but also sustain price variation.

Many observers believe we now face the bursting of yet another commodity price bubble. We have seen a 90% increase in the price of farmland since 2009. The policies of the United States farm bill created through massive lobbying efforts by Monsanto and other large agricultural producers, has sheltered the U.S. commodities industry from the effects of the previous bubble that popped in 2011, which was created by the same traders responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. However, the rest of the world was deeply affected-- mass starvation and the destruction of many farms around the world.

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The story of agribusiness takeover of the U.S. food production system tells the story of class divide and changes in the economic structure of the country where the few profit at the expense of the many. However, when we see how Monsanto has been involved in U.S. foreign policy, that’s when we see them go straight Bond villain on our unsuspecting asses, and we see elements of the ongoing narrative of U.S, imperialism. Instances of Monsanto crops driving small farmers off their land are numerous, but it is in the example of Colombia that we can see the importance of companies like Monsanto in the complex network of American abuse of power and oligarchical collectivism.

At the fourth meeting of the United Nations Committee on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1976 large developed countries who were developing large agglomerated farms blocked a resolution to stabilize commodity prices. This is because huge producers of crops can weather a storm of global price fluctuations and in many cases profit from them in the long run. A small coffee producer in Colombia doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for a more profitable harvest in the future to feed his or her children.

The United States has blocked efforts to stabilize crop prices at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) meetings in 1976 in Nairobi and in 1979 in Manilla, forcing many Colombian farmers to switch from food production to production of coca leaf, the raw plant involved in the production of cocaine. The prevention of a global trade agreement ensuring fair prices going to farmers in poor countries took place just five years after the announcement of the War on Drugs, which dramatically increased spending on law enforcement against the sale and use of drugs, and paved the way for large scale military action in many parts of South and Central America. The increase in cocaine production caused by the destructive prices of Latin American farm goods served as the pretext for military action all over the region against governments and rebel movements seen as contrary to our national business interests, and prop up dictatorships seen as friendly to American capitalism.

In 2000 the United States began supplying the Colombian government with military aid money and helicopters and small planes for the purpose of aerial fumigation of coca plants mostly in southern Colombia. Virtually all of U.S. aid to Colombia has been military aid to help fight the "War on Drugs." The lack of willingness by the United States to address the conditions that drive these farmers toward coca production demonstrates the intentional impotence in fighting the use and trafficking of drugs. As Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies explains:

"It makes a lot of economic sense for campesinos to grow coca because they can convert coca into coca paste on their farm in a small crude lab and the middle men the traffickers will come to farm or the nearest small town and buy the coca paste and pay them cash and take it away for them. Now the heart of U.S. policy requires that these campesinos grow hundreds of kilos of so called legal crops instead. But the problem is we're asking these people to grow hundred of kilos of yucca plantains and pineapples and other things that they have to haul transport on vehicles they don't have on roads that don't exist to sell in markets both internal and exports they don't have access to and to compete against an international global economy, international agribusiness against which they don't have a chance."

Noam Chomsky likens the situation to if China decided to bomb Kentucky and North Carolina to destroy tobacco plants, which he points out, kill 25 times the amount of people as all other drugs combined. A report by the conservative think tank the Rand Corporation concluded that focus on foreign drug producers such as aerial fumigation would have virtually no impact curbing the flow of drugs into the United States. The report said that such efforts would be one twenty-third as cost effective in curbing cocaine addiction as prevention and treatment. In fact, since the beginning of the spraying program coca production has increased.The spray uses the chemical glyphosate, which has been shown to greatly increase the risk of cancer in both the thyroid and the testicles, elevating the risk of cancer in both the current and future generations of Colombians. Much of the forests, waterways, fisheries and farms essential to the way of life in southern Colombia, largely inhabited by dark skinned Afro-Colombians, have been either destroyed or poisoned. In addition to the damage to human health all small farms producing "legitimate" crops, largely for subsistence, destroying the entire livelihoods of whole farming villages, leaving with no way to feed themselves or their families.

A demonstration was staged for Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) who had expressed concerns about the accuracy of the fumigation techniques. During the demonstration, Wellstone was drenched with Glyphosate, so imagine how inaccurate they are when they're not trying to convince a United States senator. Surveys of destroyed Colombian farms confirm Wellstone's doubts. So why would the U.S. pursue such a failure of a policy both tactically and morally? Well, guess what company was contracted by the government to produce the glyphosate with other dangerous chemicals used during the fumigation. Please, not Monsanto, please, not Monsanto! Who am I kidding? Of course its Monsanto. Well at least they used the land, right? Wrong. After destroying the farms of many subsistence farmers who produced crops essential to the Colombian cultural traditions and ecology, and the landscape that had sustained generations of compesinos destroyed. Monsanto flooded the market with mono-cultural capital intensive seeds for crops. So to sum that despicable shit up real quick, they lobbied to prevent commodity price stabilization which drove farmers toward coca production, then they produced the chemicals to destroy that coca to make room for their products.

Now I know what you're thinking right. "Hey, you big sexy jerk, why don't you give me some good news?" Well, ok. On September 10th, 2013, in a rare challenge to American economic hegemony by the Colombian government after weeks of strikes, a diverse array of labor unions were able to negotiate the allowance of saving seeds from year to year defying the practice of bio-patenting, which has ran many small American farmers into the ground by forcing them to buy new seeds every planting season. Despite this victory aerial fumigation continues, farms are being destroyed and cancer rates in southern Colombia continue to rise.

I would be remiss if I didn't include the caveat that, despite my ranting, I love me some Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, Speedos and all other 'eetos' as much as the next guy, but I also love the taste of a fresh tomato off the vine. Fortunately for me, I am part of a privileged sector of American society to be able to say that. A large swath of American society do not have access to anything that is even close to something that grew out of the earth. And because of the policies of the U.S. government in the pocket of corporations like Monsanto, I am part of a privileged sector of the world's population that has anything to eat at all.