The new killing fields: How agribusiness poisons laborers, consumers and the planet

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Agribusiness. It’s a coddled but murderous giant, with vast profits and even more vast influence. Nurtured by subsidies, tax breaks, labor-law exemptions, and tailor-made government policies, it repays these favors by working its laborers literally to death, spewing its toxins into our food and water and air, leveling wildlife habitat, and engorging itself on precious natural resources.

Yet in some ways it is an almost invisible giant, rarely analyzed in the mainstream media. It is a Goliath long overdue to be exposed — and brought down by the stones and slings of those many millions it menaces and destroys.

Factory farming’s long, lethal reach. In 1996, the last year for which full figures are available, annual agricultural profits went up for the third time in a row.

Not all farmers are created equal, however. The smallest farms, those with less than $100,000 in sales, actually lost money on average. As the business of agriculture grows larger, family and other modest operations continue to be squeezed out. And in consolidating their takeover, the mega-corporations are getting plenty of help from bought-and-paid-for politicians.

Just one instance of how the system works: Don Tyson owns the world’s largest chicken slaughtering company. Worth $800 million, Tyson has been a major contributor to Bill Clinton’s campaigns. And no wonder. While Clinton was governor of Arkansas, where Tyson Foods is based, he supported business tax “credits” that saved Tyson $7.8 million and, on top of that, allowed the poultry industry to pour chicken waste products into the state’s waterways.

After Clinton moved into the White House, he promised national reform of the notoriously under-regulated poultry business. But his Agriculture Secretary, Mike Espy, was forced to resign after it was publicized that he was taking too many handouts — from the chicken kings.

This time-honored arrangement of payola and pollution creates enormous injury. A minimum of 60 percent of U.S. poultry is contaminated with salmonella or other harmful microorganisms, but at the urging of poultry peddlers, the Department of Agriculture sticks with an obsolete system of visual inspections only. And as with the E. coli bacteria found in beef, the diseases caused by tainted chickens hit hardest at the very young and very old.

Farmworkers bear the brunt. The people suffering the most from the depredations of agribusiness are the people who directly generate its grosses.

The average U.S. resident can expect to live into their seventies. If you are a farmworker, however, the statistics say you will only make it to the age of 49. Pesticides kill, and they kill those in the fields first.

The herbicide atrazine, banned in most of Europe, is the main chemical used in U.S. agriculture. It alters estrogen in the body, causes tumors in lab rats, is acknowledged to be a possible human carcinogen, and is a primary contaminant of drinking water.

As an organochlorine — a pesticide containing chlorine — atrazine belongs to the same family as DDT, dioxin, and Agent Orange. Women are especially vulnerable to its effects. When exposed to high levels of organochlorines, women develop higher than average rates of breast cancer.

Pesticides also result in birth defects and developmental problems in children. In Yakima County, an apple-growing region of Washington state, the number of birth defects is more than twice the state average.

Farmworkers, largely Chicano/a and Mexicano/a, are not only violated by chemicals, but are subject to grueling conditions, low pay, job insecurity, racist treatment, and anti-immigrant scapegoating. They have been the foremost fighters against the agriculture czars, and they will continue to be.

Depleting and despoiling the earth’s resources. What agribusiness doesn’t poison, it voraciously consumes.

For example: Before the Gold Rush, California was a paradise of wetlands — five million acres’ worth. Now there are only 300,000 acres. Its waterfowl, once numbering 60 million, are down to 2.5 million.

California’s rivers have been dammed, its salmon runs lost, its water drained and diverted to dry areas. Astoundingly, farming is responsible for 80 percent or more of all the state’s water use.

In sum, California has been ecologically and politically redesigned from top to bottom to suit the needs of its gigantic growers.

Battling the food barons. Farmworkers, consumers, environmentalists, and activists such as the women leading cancer prevention coalitions have waged campaigns to check the abuses of agribusiness and have scored important victories — the formation of the United Farm Workers, the banning of DDT, laws regulating food quality, and more. But the big-business agriculturalists, rabidly dedicated to holding down costs, are constantly devising new ways to shore up their position.

The new crime of “food disparagement” is a case in point. The agriculture lobby has won laws in 13 states against disseminating “controversial” information about food that is not based on “sound science”; journalists can now be sued for warning the public about unsafe foods. Most famously, Oprah Winfrey was sued by a Texas beef feedlot owner after she hosted a program that discussed “mad cow disease.”

Given the enormous power and wealth of agribusiness, it will take a mass mobilization to begin to make real changes. Many Davids will be needed to slay this Goliath.

Fortunately, everyone who eats, drinks and breathes has a stake in ending the obscenely wasteful, irrational and deadly method of agriculture existing today. And the labor movement, where farmworkers and other low-paid and historically under-represented workers are now bringing their issues to the fore, is the natural place for such a campaign to blossom.

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