Organic Consumers Association

Industrial Agriculture and Corporate Power

by Skip Spitzer
This article is condensed from a longer text, available as a PDF at

The industrial food system

Within just the past 50 years, industrial agriculture has become the dominant model for producing food. Instead of small, family-oriented farms raising a variety of crops and animals, industrial agriculture is based on large-scale, machine- and chemical-intensive farms specializing in single animal products or hybrid high-yield crops. In monocultural farming systems, machines have greatly supplanted farm labor, which is now performed largely by employees. Harvests have become commodities typically sold to specialized firms for storage, processing, distribution, manufacture and marketing, domestically and internationally.

An unsustainable model

Industrial farming fundamentally erodes the ecological basis of cultivation and creates crops especially vulnerable to weeds, insects and disease. Monoculture farming precludes beneficial crop interactions, forgoes complimentary relationships between plant cultivation and animal husbandry (e.g., manure used for fertilization), limits fertility-enhancing crop rotations, provides uniform targets for pests, and undermines beneficial soil organisms, pollinators and natural pest predators. Modern hybrid varieties deliberately emphasize economic traits (such as yield) over survivability traits (such as disease resistance). Thus industrial crops tend to be vulnerable to pests and require synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that further erode the natural fertility of the soil, kill beneficial insects and accelerate the development of pest resistance.

Economic concentration

A key aspect of the industrial food system is that it is an outgrowth of a long and on-going process of economic concentration that allows the biggest agribusinesses by and large to define and control the modern food system. Today in the U.S., only 8% of farms account for 72% of sales.(1) Worldwide, the top ten seed firms now control 30% of the $24.4 billion seed market (the top three are DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta).(2) The top ten agrochemical corporations control 84% of the $30 billion agrochemical market (the top three are Syngenta, Monsanto and Bayer).

Agricultural biotechnology

Big agribusiness is now commercializing genetically engineered crops. Unlike conventionally bred plants, genetically modified organisms contain DNA in which bioengineers have inserted one or more genes selected literally from the pool of all known life.

The advent of genetically altered crops has deepened corporate control of food by accelerating economic concentration and changing property rights around seeds. The development and marketing of agricultural biotechnology prompted new rounds of mergers and acquisitions of seed, agrochemical and biotechnology companies. In fact, the top seven agricultural biotechnology companies are now also the top agrochemical corporations and rank among the top ten seed corporations. Using new intellectual property rights, these companies are patenting "new forms of life" and licensing biotech seeds rather than selling them. Licensing agreements typically outlaw the farmer's use and breeding of second generation seeds and pose other requirements.(3)

Environmental costs

The impacts of the industrial food system are far-reaching. Environmental costs of the industrial food system begin with the soil, as erosion, depletion, salinization, alkalinization, and chemical and animal waste contamination have become intractable problems. In the last 40 years nearly one third of the world's arable land has been lost.(4) Chemical inputs kill fish, birds, insects and other wildlife, pollute the air and water and deplete the ozone. Massive irrigation has depleted aquifers. Farm machinery, long distance transport and input production consume vast amounts of fossil fuels. U.S. agriculture uses ten fossil fuel calories for each single food calorie produced.(5) The widespread adoption of relatively few commercially successful crop varieties has lead to the loss of an estimated 75% of the genetic diversity in agriculture in the past 100 years.(6) Now genetically engineered crops pose unprecedented risks of irreversible genetic contamination.

Public health

Industrial foods are frequently highly processed and nutritionally degraded, made with hazardous additives and contain pesticide residues and other industrial contaminants. Industry-made trans fats, which are present in 40% of processed foods, are so harmful the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine suggests that people should simply not eat them.(7) In the U.S., 73% of conventionally grown foods contain residues from at least one pesticide.(8)

Agrochemicals also pose health hazards in agricultural fields and neighboring communities and wherever they move by air and water. The World Health Organization estimated one million serious, unintentional pesticide poisonings take place globally every year, with millions of additional milder cases likely.(9) Many pesticides also have long term health impacts, including many types of cancers, neurological effects, reproductive and developmental illness and endocrine disruption.(10) In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control recently looked for and found 116 pesticides and other chemicals in human blood and urine,(11) an industrial chemical "body burden" that is passed on to our children through breast milk and prenatal

Small farmers and rural communities

Concentration in the inputs sectors exposes farmers to artificially-high cost seed, chemicals and other farming products, while concentration in commodity markets artificially lowers farm-gate prices, squeezing farmer profits. As a result, small farms are disappearing. In the U.S. for example there were 5.4 million farms in 1950, but just over two million in 1997.(13) Despite this decline, four-fifths of U.S. agricultural subsidies go to the top 30% of farms.(14) In the Third World, agribusiness development and the opening of markets to large-scale, heavily subsidized, foreign farm products is causing even more extensive displacement of small farmers.

Meanwhile, instead of providing a promised "bullet train to the future," biotech seeds have at best yielded mixed performance in terms of yield and pesticide use, while closing export markets, contaminating crops, creating uncertainties over liability, increasing restrictions on seed use, and accelerating development of pest resistance to herbicides as well as organic-approved Bt biopesticides.

The family farm crisis is also destroying rural communities. As local economies deteriorate, so do peoples' lives. For example, from just 1980 to 1997, the difference in suicide rates between men in the most rural and most urban U.S. counties grew from 21% to 54%.(15)


Nearly three-quarters of U.S. farmworkers earn less than $10,000 per year and three out of five farmworker families have incomes below the poverty
level.(16) In developing countries the situation is even more extreme. For example, an agricultural wage worker in Central African Republic needs to work six hours to buy a single kilo of the cheapest staple cereal grain.(17) Meanwhile, the chemicals and heavy machinery of industrial agriculture create a high risk work environment. In 1996, the occupational death rate for U.S. agricultural workers was estimated at 20.9 per 100,000 compared to an average of 3.9 for all other U.S. industries.(18)

Other impacts

Women are responsible for half of the world's food production, yet farm policies typically ignore women's experiences and concerns, exclude them from decision-making, and create barriers to women's access to land, credit, technology, training, services and other resources.(19) Racial minorities also face discriminatory practices; for example, less than 1% of black farmers sit on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) county committees, which oversee subsidies and a wide range of other agency operations.(20) Indigenous peoples are frequently displaced from productive land by industrial agricultural interests. In Chiapas, Mexico, indigenous communities have been pushed to agriculturally poor highland and rainforest lands, and more productive lands are now in the hands of cotton, sugarcane and cattle-ranching export interests.(21)

Sustainable alternatives

As the problems of the industrial approach become clearer, farmers and researchers in many countries are building on the rich heritage of traditional and indigenous farming systems and demonstrating the extraordinary potential of ecologically-based agriculture. For example, small farms, which generally exhibit many of the features of sustainable farming, are extremely productive when considering total food production, rather than how much of a single crop can be produced. In fact, smaller farms can produce 200 to 1000% more than larger ones.(22)

Corporate power

A transition to genuinely sustainable alternatives, however, must confront the problem of corporate power. The growth of the corporate sector and the accumulation of extraordinary amounts of private wealth have radically transformed the role of the corporation. Large corporations have in fact become decisive players in determining the organization of society overall.

In the U.S., corporations produce 88% of private sector output,(23) leaving basic decision-making about product development, resource use, production processes, and use of labor largely in corporate hands. Only 1% of U.S. corporations produce 80% of private sector output(24) and, worldwide, just 200 corporations -- 82 of them U.S.-based and most larger than many national economies -- control well over a quarter of the world's economic
activity.(25) In addition, many corporations are linked with other firms via owners, directors and senior managers who also own, direct and manage other corporations.

Politics, law and policy

Corporations support political candidates and office holders they seek to influence. One internal document of the Chemical Manufacturer's Association revealed the association's strategy of using political action committees to "upgrade the Congress" and "improve access to Members."(26) Big companies also influence ballot initiatives with financial support, such as the more than $4 million agribusiness spent to defeat the 2002 Oregon citizens initiative to label genetically engineered food.(27)

High-level employees commonly rotate between industry and the public agencies that regulate them, providing insider know-how and friendly connections through which rules can be bent and loopholes exploited. For example, Michael Taylor worked at Food and Drug Administration (FDA), then as an attorney representing Monsanto, then went back to FDA, and then joined Monsanto as Vice President for Public Policy.(28)

Through trade associations, hired guns and in-house specialists, corporations lobby government decision-makers and even provide them with policy drafts. For example, in 2000 Representative Richard Pombo introduced a House bill on pesticide regulation that was a nearly word-for-word duplicate of a 1999 draft by an industry consulting firm employing former senior U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) managers.(29)

Large firms deploy teams of lawyers to defend and discourage liability suits, silence critics through so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (or SLAPPs) and enforce contracts and licensing agreements. Monsanto, for example, has threatened and pursued legal action against hundreds of farmers to prevent reuse of its biotech seeds, employing private "detectives" and even setting up toll-free whistle-blower lines.

Even where corporations do not actively exert influence, holders of high office themselves frequently have significant ownership in large corporations and other financial ties and histories that predispose them to industry-friendly positions. For example, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman was a director of the biotech company Calgene (now owned by
Monsanto) and served on the International Policy Council on Agriculture, Food and Trade, a group funded by Cargill, Nestle, Kraft, and Archer Daniels

The media and public relations

Corporations influence reporting by providing press releases and "expert" sources, lobbying reporters and threatening legal action. For example, Monsanto repeatedly pressured Fox News over a story about the health risks of its recombinant (genetically engineered) Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). Fox killed the project and ultimately fired the reporters.(31)

The average adult in the U.S. watches 21,000 television ads annually, 75% of them paid for by the 100 largest corporations. Thus, the public is far more likely to know Archer Daniel Midland as the "supermarket to the world," rather than as a multinational grain giant with an egregious history of political contributions and favors, price-fixing and government

Corporations also make use of a variety of internal PR departments, PR firms and "informational" organizations to poll public opinion, develop strategy and promote their messages through the media, ads, speeches, reports, articles and more. For example, Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis, BASF, Dow, Aventis and other major agricultural biotechnology companies launched a $52 million PR campaign(33) directed by BSMG Worldwide, a major PR firm that can "express an industry viewpoint" with "powerful, emotionally resonant

Science, research and education

Corporations influence science and research in several ways. Corporate involvement in university research is rising rapidly, as universities struggle with reductions in federal and state funding, costly high-tech facilities, and a lack of access to proprietary information (such as patented genes).(35) Many researchers sit on corporate boards, own stock and have other financial ties to the companies to which their research relates. Industry also funds research institutes and policy think tanks. For example, the American Council on Science and Health -- a think tank receiving 40 to 76% of its funding from large corporations(36,37) such as Dow Chemical, DuPont, and Monsanto(38) -- promotes the idea that concerns about pesticides like DDT and Alar are "unfounded health scares."(39)

Corporations are also involved in education. They provide schools with educational material training, advice, teachers, presentations, exhibits, contests and awards. For example, Lifetime Learning Systems advertises that:

Coming from school, all these materials carry an extra measure of credibility that gives your message added weight. Imagine millions of students discussing your product in class. Imagine their teachers presenting your organization's point of view.(40)

Agrochemical corporations are financing "safe use" educational programs for farmers and farm workers in developing countries. These programs are designed to counter efforts for stronger pesticide regulation in the global South, where lack of clean water and protective equipment and clothing, and other field conditions increase poisoning risk.

Corporate power globally

Corporate power has long been a global phenomenon. Yet today we see the growth in number and size of corporations that trade internationally or operate in more than one country, rising commitment to neoliberalism by national governments and further development of global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The IMF and the World Bank broadly benefit corporations -- principally by requiring recipient nations to adopt a wide range of neoliberal policies, such as reduction of trade regulations and limits on foreign ownership, privatization, tariff reductions and export-led growth.(41) The World Bank also provides transnational and large domestic corporations with lucrative contracts, resource access, investment loans and guarantees, technical assistance, and advisory programs. Bank projects in agriculture overwhelmingly foster the industrial model.(42)

Even more far-reaching, a growing league of trade and investment agreement, e.g., the North American Free Trade Agreement, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Free Trade Area of the Americas and particularly those of the WTO, are codifying new corporate rights. The WTO, for example, negotiates, interprets and enforces global trade and investment agreements that raise commercial interests above governments' rights to set their own policies relating to trade, regulation, investment, purchasing and other areas, regardless of social or environmental considerations. For example, the WTO Agreement on Agriculture removes barriers to agricultural markets, generally favoring industrial exporters (and their methods of production). Not surprisingly, huge, market-distorting agribusinesses themselves are not seen as barriers to free markets.

Corporate power and social change

What are the implications of concentrations of private wealth that allow enormous companies around the world, pursuing little more than their own profitability, to create an industrial food system that deeply afflicts nature and people, and to exert such broad influence nationally and around the world?

Rachel Carson is often credited with sparking the modern environmental movement in the U.S. and elsewhere through raising awareness about DDT and other chemicals in Silent Spring. But many environmental movements may have missed an essential message when she wrote of "an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make money, at whatever cost to others, is seldom challenged" (emphasis added).(43) That is, tackling the threat to public and environmental welfare is not just a matter of curbing particular corporate harms, or even creating and promoting sustainable alternatives. Ultimately, the structure of corporate rights and power must be addressed.

Learning how to make meaningful change in the short-term while advancing the longer-term task of corporate reform is one of the key challenges for progressive movements today.

Skip Spitzer is Genetic Engineering Campaign Coordinator at PANNA.


1. Anuradha Mittal, "Giving Away the Farm: The 2002 Farm Bill," Food First Backgrounder, Summer 2002. 2. 2 Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, "Globalization Inc. -- Concentration in Corporate Power: The Unmentioned Agenda," July 2001, available at 3. For an overview of agricultural biotechnology see Skip Spitzer, "Genetically Engineered Crops and Food," online presentation,
4. Wes Jackson, "Natural Systems Agriculture" in Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, Andrew Kimbrell, ed., Island Press, Washington, 2002. 5. Ibid. 6. Estimate from "Crop Genetic Resources," in Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture, Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization, 1998. 7. Editorial, "Label those trans fats," Sacramento Bee, 16 May 2003. 8. Marian Burros, "Study Finds Far Less Pesticide Residue on Organic Produce," New York Times, 8 May 2002. 9. J. Jeyaratnama, "Acute Pesticide Poisoning: A Major Global Health Problem," World Health Statistics Quarterly, vol.43, no.3, 1990, pp.139-44. 10. Monica Moore, "Hidden Dimensions of Damage" in Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, Andrew Kimbrell, ed., Island Press, Washington, 2002. 11. Centers for Disease Control, "National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals," January 2003. 12. See for example RM Whyatt and DB Barr, "Measurement of organophosphate metabolites in postpartum meconium as a potential biomarker of prenatal
exposure: A validation study," Environmental Health Perspectives, 2001, 109(4), pp.417-20. 13. 1997 Census of Agriculture, USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. 14. Leo Horrigan, Robert S. Lawrence and Polly Walker, "How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture," Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, 9 July 1999. 15. Gopal K. Singh and Mohammad Siahpush, "Increasing Rural-Urban Gradients in US Suicide Mortality, 1970-1997," American Journal of Public Health, July 2002, vol. 92, no. 7. 16. U.S. Department of Labor, "Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 1997-1998: A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers," Research Report No. 8, March 2000. 17. International Labor Organization, "Agricultural Wage Workers: The Poorest of the Rural Poor," September 1996. 18. Margaret Reeves, Kristin Schafer, Kate Hallward and Anne Katten, "Fields of Poison: California Farmworkers and Pesticides," Pesticide Action Network North America, 1999, p.6. 19. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Gender and Food Security website, on 8 June 2003. 20. Peter Hardin and Kirsten Mitchell, "Has USDA settlement changed anything?," Richmond Times-Dispatch, 15 December 2002. 21. Maria Elena Martinez, "Roots of Rebellion," Crossroads Magazine, 14 March 2002. 22. Peter Rosset, "The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture," Food First Policy Brief, No. 4, September 1999. 23. Calculated from data from webpage, "Total Number of US Businesses," on 23 May 2003. 24. Stanley Eitzen and Maxine Baca-Zinn, Social Problems, 8th Ed., Boston: Allyn And Bacon, 2000, p. 27. 25. Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh, "Top 200: The Rise of Global Corporate Power," Institute for Policy Studies, December 2000. 26. Chemical Manufacturers Association Government Relations Committee, "Report to the Board," 8 September 1980, CMA 072737, PDF file in the Environmental Working Group Chemical Industry Archive,
27., on 21 July 2003. 28. Edmonds Institute, "The Revolving Door," Edmonds Institute website at, and Biography of Michael Taylor on the Resources for the Future website at For other revolving door cases, see for example, Organization for Competitive Markets, "FDA's revolving door: Part II," Organization for Competitive Markets Newsletter, February 2000, available at
29. George Lardner Jr. and Joby Warrick, "Pesticide Coalition Tries to Blunt Regulation," Washington Post, 13 May 2000. 30. Center for Responsive Politics webpage,, on 20 May 2003. 31. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Extra! Update, June 1998, also see the Center for Media and Democracy's website, which monitors the public relations industry for information about Monsanto's influencing of Fox News. 32. For more on the company see James Lieber, Rats in the Grain: The Dirty Tricks and Trials of Archer Daniels Midland, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000. 33. Brett Chase, "Novartis Eliminates Gene-Altered Ingredients From Food Products," Bloomberg, 3 August 2000, 15:7. 34. BSMG webpage, and on 14 June 2000. 35. Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, "The Kept University," Atlantic Monthly, March 2000. 36. John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, "The Junkyard Dogs of Science," PR Watch, Volume 5, No. 4, September 1998, available at
37. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, Putnam Publishing Group, 2000. 38. Environmental Working Group, "Show Me The Science! Corporate Polluters and the 'Junk Science' Strategy," July 1997, available at
39. Adam Lieberman and Simona C. Kwon, "Facts versus Fears," a report of the American Council on Science and Health, June 1998. 40. M. F. Jacobson and L. A. Mazur, Marketing Madness, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995. 41. For more on "structural adjustment" policies, see Walden Bello, Dark Victory, Pluto Press: Institute for Food and Development Policy and Transnational Institute, 1994. 42. B. Karel, "The Persistence of Pesticide Dependence: a review of World Bank projects and their compliance with the World Bank's pest Management Policy," forthcoming. See the summary in this issue, Persistent Habits: Pesticide dependence in World Bank lending. 43. Rachel Carson, "Silent Spring -- III," The New Yorker, vol. 38, no. 19, 30 June 1962), p. 67.

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