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Agribusiness: Feeding Profit Rather Than People
by Center for Applied Science
The most surprising fact about agriculture today is that sometimes people have enough food, that hunger is not more widespread than it is. This is surprising because in most of the world today, food production is not undertaken to feed people, food does not flow from well-fed areas to hungry areas; nor do fluctuations in food production follow changing needs. The problem of hunger in the world today is not the result of too many people or of an unsuccessful effort to feed people, but of a pattern of resource use, population movement, agriculture, and research that is essentially independent of peoples’ needs. What follows is an outline of our views on agriculture with some specific examples. Our intent is not to document all cases relevant to our points, but rather to emphasize the pervasiveness and extent of the social and economic costs to the many, for the benefit of a few, which results from the motives and practices of “modern” agriculture.
1. Food production is for profit and power rather than to feed people.
Agriculture in much of the world is production not for food, but for commodities to sell. The choices of crops, markets, and technology are dictated by considerations of profitability rather than need. This is especially true when the agricultural system is under foreign control, especially by imperialist countries like the U.S. Then the diversion of land from production for local use and sale, to production for export, has rapidly increased hunger: e.g. in Brazil blackbeans, a major food item, has been displaced by soybeans for export, and cash crops, mostly peanuts, have encroached on the grazing lands of the Sahel.
What is planted and how much control farmers have over food surpluses have long been used as political weapons. In 1918, Herbert Hoover used his control over postwar famine relief to starve out the Hungarian Soviet Republic. After World War II, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration distributed food without regard to political system. But the U.S. caused the demise of this program in 1947 so that unilateral aid by the U.S. could be a weapon in the cold war. The current “Green Revolution” not only makes world agriculture dependent on U.S. science and technology, it strengthens the rural bourgeoisie and is a consciously used weapon against revolutionary upsurge. In the case of India, Hari Sharma has shown how the wealthy landowners have used the Green Revolution to their own ends, not for feeding people better, but rather to increase their own wealth at the expense of the laborers.1
2. Economic institutions support “modern” agriculture, benefit big business, and are organized to increase profit.
Despite dramatic increases in crop yields and food prices in recent years, most farmers in the U.S. are facing decreasing returns for their investments. In 1945 farmers averaged $1000 net income for every $1000 production expenses; in 1975 they made only $400 (not corrected for inflation!). Of course this average presents a distorted view of the situation since the existence of a very few highly successful enterprises hides the fact that most farmers are doing far worse. The rapid migration from rural to urban areas (see below) is evidence of the fact that most farmers are facing increasingly hard times. Among the factors which contribute to this situation are the rapidly increasing costs of agricultural inputs and the increasing share of the food dollar which goes to food-processing and food-distributing companies.
In the U.S., as well as in many other countries, banks and credit agencies often require that their clients plant only specific crops and use capital-intensive methods, emphasizing cash crops, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, heavy machines and High Yield Varieties (HYV). For example, in the Philippines, in order to qualify for land redistribution under “agrarian reform” and to receive government credit, a farmer must agree to use the “Green Revolution” package: HYV seeds and chemical supports.
In Third-World countries, attempts by international institutes and local governments to increase agricultural productivity are made to insure the development of capitalist relations in the agricultural sector and to improve their balance-of-payments situation, not to insure that the masses of the people eat better.
3. Agriculture for profit affects peoples’ lives in the most basic and dramatic ways.
Farmers and consumers have lost control over the kinds of food grown, how it is grown, harvested and processed, and the prices at which it is marketed. This means that people are being displaced from their very existence as farmers by the crush of large capital-intensive farming and the market restrictions of profit production. Rural communities are disrupted and sometimes obliterated as people migrate to cities in search of work. In the US since 1940, 30 million people have moved to urban centers. There is still a migration rate of 800,000 people per year leaving their farms.2 Many displaced farm families are compelled to resort to welfare. In the numerous countries without welfare, many, many people starve.
In many agrarian societies, numerous social and economic organizations have been destroyed by imperialism in the agricultural sector. For example, in much of Africa, women traditionally performed most of the agricultural work and provided the economic support for their families. The European colonialists objected to women doing “men’s work” so they employed only men on their plantations and farms. Later when agricultural extension services were established, agents taught only the men and encouraged them to take over farming responsibilities despite the fact that the women were historically the agriculturalists. Thus the family structure was disrupted and the economic independence of women was seriously undermined.
The effects of capitalist agriculture reach us every day. The food we eat is often loaded with harmful chemicals such as dyes, ripeners, and the residues from expensive pesticides and fertilizers used in the growing process. The social cost in terms of good health and well-being is virtually inestimable.
4. Agricultural technology and practices are dictated by considerations of profit rather than of human welfare.
In many parts of the world including the U.S. and Latin America, food producers get most of their technical advice from representatives of companies which produce agricultural inputs, e.g. machinery, chemical, seeds. These companies are primarily geared to serve and advise capital-intensive producers, who in tum supply most of the raw materials to food-processing and distributing enterprises. Together the input producers and food processors, with the assistance of government agencies like AID have created the myth that “modern” agriculture means using the technology and practices now being developed in the U.S., and that this kind of agriculture is necessary for “development.” In fact, though, this technology has been developed to maximize the profits and/or convenience of three commercial interests: agricultural-supply companies, capital-intensive producers, and food processors and distributors.
Until very recently, little thought has been given to the nutritive value of the food produced or to the effect of the technology on the environment. Thus, for several years cattle producers have been using diethylstilbestrol (DES), to fatten their stock quickly in feedlots, even though DES is a potent carcinogen. Plants have been developed to maximize profits through very high yields; it is no coincidence that these plants require very heavy treatments with chemical fertilizers and pesticides in order to realize their potential. But these new practices are undermining our safety: agricultural workers are being poisoned by pesticides, nitrate fertilizers are contributing to the formation of highly carcinogenic nitrosamines, waterways and fisheries are being contaminated by both fertilizer and pesticide runoffs, etc.
Finally, indiscriminate mechanization is causing further environmental problems in many places by causing erosion and loss of soil fertility. Mechanization, together with other requirements of the “modern” system, actually determines the types and arrangements of plants which farmers can grow. Cotton plants have been bred which have foliage covered with rather long hairs which makes them relatively resistent to boll-weevil attack. Growing this variety would greatly reduce the need for pesticides, but since the long hairs clog up the harvesters, the varieties are not grown. Mechanical harvesters have been designed for monocultures; in order to mechanize, the farmer must plant crops in monocultures despite growing convictions that mixed cropping is a more “ecologically sound” practice.
5. Agricultural research is dictated by the profit motive and power mentality of food production.
Agricultural research is only indirectly related to feeding people as its orientation is directed, especially in the US, toward profit. Research is carried out by the agricultural supporting industries themselves and by the land-grant colleges whose research priorities are determined by their funding sources: private industry and a government in full support of private industry. Many more studies are done to synthesize new pesticides than to explore the benefits of biological pest control; new varieties of crops are selected for under high-fertilizer regimes while almost no work is done to explore the possibilities of soil replenishing from mixed-cropping schemes. Improving the yield or marketability of agricultural products is a well-funded focus of research while improving the nutritional quality is not. Finally, much research for agriculture in Third-World countries is done for developing exportable and profitable commodities, not for improving the staple foods of the local people.
How research is done is a function of the same ideology that defines what is done. Hence, complex problems are reduced to the search for profit-producing single solutions.
The problem of agriculture is not that there are too many people or that nature is at fault or that there is still insufficient scientific knowledge to solve world hunger: the problem is power and its use by monied interests in government and private industry to perpetuate their interests and keep the rest of us serving them.
Our program has to be to resist, thwart, and eventually smash that power.
As part of that process it is necessary to understand and expose agribusiness, the domination of the science and technology of agriculture by the chemical and farm-machine industries, and U.S. government and corporate control over land, resources, markets and prices in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
This overview of our approach to agriculture is at the same time our agenda for studying it further. The central theme is that even where we focus on scientific and technical questions these can only be understood in the context of the political economy of food. We invite you to look into these questions further with the help of the readings listed below, and to join in our efforts to understand agriculture so as to be better able to change it.
Center for Applied Science
The Center for Applied Science is a new group of people working together to examine the social and political basis of science and research, and to analyze and act on our understanding of the problems of agriculture, public health, and human ecology. We are trying to join with others who share our concerns. Please write to us:
The Center for Applied Science
Harvard School of Public Health
665 Huntington Ave.
Boston, Mass. 02115
Cleaver, H. 1972. The Contradictions of the Green Revolution. Monthly Review, June 1972.
Franke, R. 197 4. Solution to the Asian food crisis: Green revolution or social revolution. Bull. Concerned Asian Scholars 6 (4): 1-13.
Griffin, K. 1975. The Political Economy of Agrarian Change. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge.
Hightower, J. 1973. Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times. Schenkman, Cambridge.
Levins, R. 1974. Genetics and Hunger, Genetics 78 67-76.
Sharma, H. 1973. The green revolution in India: Prelude to a red one? in Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia, ed. Gough, K. and H. Sharma, Monthly Review Press, N.Y. pp. 77-102.