Grainmorrah

I gave the following presentation Friday night at Give & Take, an interactive show and tell happy hour held monthly at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis. Both informative and a lot of fun. Even our ancestors, without a smartphone among them, played like kids on the harvest moon. But fair warning: history has shown the most innocuous festival can turn rebellious when its partisans’ longstanding grievances have been ill-addressed in the workaday.

We’re going to play a game called Grainmorrah. Unlike tic-tac-toe we can’t just jump right in as we don’t already know the game’s premise. So we’re going to run through a few slides for a little background.

First, Grainmorrah? What’s that? It’s a play off Gomorrah, a book by Roberto Saviano about the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia.

SLIDE 2. Saviano observed that the Camorra worked along a double track. When their legal businesses were in crisis they used the criminal side of their operations to help out: print out counterfeit bills if you’re short on cash or annihilate the competition by extortion or by undercutting them with smuggled goods.

On the other hand, the legal businesses could be used for laundering dirty money, getting bank loans, and winning state contracts. Saviano pointed out that the duality aims at reducing the gap between whatever the law might be and what making money demands of you.

SLIDE 3. It struck me that this is exactly the kind of game that global agribusiness plays (with some interesting variations). When a practice is illegal here, agribusiness either 1) leans on Congressional representatives to change the law so that the practice is now legal or 2) moves elsewhere where labor and environmental laws are lax. When something is illegal elsewhere bring U.S. rules in their favor overseas in the form of trade agreements and structural adjustment programs.

So in the end, it’s never about what’s legal or illegal—mere details—so much as doing what needs to be done to turn social and physical infrastructure into private profit.

SLIDE 4. So in the U.S. livestock sector, the five families–Cargill, Smithfield, Tyson, JBS Swift, and Pilgrim’s Pride–parlayed vertical integration and reversals in anti-trust law into mass consolidation. They drove their smaller competitors under or took over their operations.

According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the five families now control 83 percent of beef production, 66 percent of pork production, and 58 percent of poultry production. Some of the greatest monopolistic livestock concentrations in the world. The U.S.as a result  has lost nearly 600,000 independent hog farms and half a million cattle ranches since 1980.

SLIDE 5. The same is seen in the seed industry: already-huge companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Du Pont, and that small local business Land O’Lakes have over the past decade and a half gobbled up smaller operations.

SLIDE 6. What some of us may see as an alternative, organic food, is itself largely an arm of agribusiness at this point. French Meadow is Cargill’s strategic partner.  Odwalla is owned by Coca Cola. Etc.

SLIDE 7. Its geography, however, still reflects its grassroots. Regardless of the ownership structure, farms certified organic, both independent and subsidiaries, are concentrated in our neck of the woods and, interestingly enough, in many of the blue states.

SLIDE 8. In contrast, Big Livestock’s reach is national in scale although regional by sector: swine in North Carolina and hereabouts in Minnesota and Iowa. Cattle on the Plains. Broilers in the South. Layers in California, Iowa and parts east.

That geographic extent translates into broadly distributed political power as many a representative wants to keep his or her district’s largest employers happy.

SLIDE 9. And there are the lobbying and political contributions to remind them to do so. Now, $150 million in lobbying seems a lot except that it translates into direct commodity and farm subsidies of $26 billion over five years, as provided for in the U.S. Farm Bill.

SLIDE 10. Here is a bit-outdated map of such subsidies per cropland acre, 1987-1997. We see in the browns and yellows the greatest outlays typically in areas controlled by Big Food. Indeed, a recent USDA report found areas that underwent the greatest farm consolidation over the past decade received the greatest increases in per-acre subsidy payouts. And vice-versa. That’s the dividend of political power. Those who already have, receive.

SLIDE 11. That kind of consolidation and power permits the largest producers to put the squeeze on small farmers and ranchers, like this guy.

For instance, the five families can bring down already cheap and highly subsidized livestock prices by forcing farmers to sell their animals all at the same time (IATP Radio Sustain, November 18). The short window through which the farmers must sell their perishable goods forces them to agree to still cheaper prices. That’s the kind of price manipulation that would make the Camorra proud.

SLIDE 12. So any of you who saw King Corn, switching sectors here, know that to survive such cheap pricing and win the production-linked subsidies to cover the gaps in their margins, farmers are expected to produce huge quantities. We see here a near-doubling of corn production the past decade.

SLIDE 13. We’re talking here mountains of grain that have long breached traditional silos. What do we do with all that corn?

SLIDE 14. Michael Pollan, among others, showed us food processors stuff the cheap grain into any product they can get their hands on. Bread, sugar, candy, syrup, beer, cat food, cooking oil, stuff it into our cars as ethanol, hell, even the packaging in which you’re shipping all this. You diversify your market.

SLIDE 15. You can also stuff it into other countries. Our grain exports, in orange, outpace the rest of the world’s by orders of magnitude. But here’s where Grainmorrah comes in.

SLIDE 16. You’re not just offshoring your agricultural surplus. You’re using it as a weapon. You shock-and-awe other countries’ domestic sectors into submission. Not only are you moving in cheap, already subsidized commodities, but you sell them at prices that are less than it cost you to make them. That is, you’re selling them at a loss.

It’s called grain dumping but extends to other agricultural products, including livestock. Your product is so cheap that even if you suffer temporary losses you win something better: you ruin the domestic competition, Walmart-style, leaving the new market entirely at your mercy. It’s comparable to the Camorra’s undercutting competition with tax-free smuggled goods. No one can beat that.

SLIDE 17. An example from Tuft University’s Tim Wise. When the North American Free Trade Agreement removed tariffs on U.S. goods coming into Mexico, U.S. agribusiness dumped an array of products causing billions in losses to Mexican farmers across commodities.

Now, it isn’t merely trade strategy. After the air campaign dumping grain and livestock, agribusiness moves to the ground war, buying up failing domestic farms grain dumping left in its wake.

SLIDE 18. In other words, it is a mechanism by which Big Ag, replicating its domestic consolidation, can expand its operations overseas.

SLIDE 19. From their new bases, they can spread out into primary forest.

SLIDE 20. And they can transform periurban landscapes into livestock operations we can see from space.

These recently consolidated hog farms outside of Perote in Veracruz are of particular interest to me. I study the evolution of influenza. And Perote, and a Smithfield subsidiary nearby, is only a few miles from the very first cases of pandemic swine flu H1N1 reported last year. In other words, fundamental shifts in livestock landscapes also appear to have profound effects on global epidemiology. Some year soon you may be killed by a virus “brought to you by Cargill”.

SLIDE 21. So enough background. I think we’re set to play our game. You can read more on our website, Farming Pathogens. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter.

Grainmorrah is a team game. It’s a round-robin, crowdsourced version of choose your own adventure. Here’s how it works. We’re going to divide the room into three groups: agribusiness, which has moved into a new country; small independent farmers in that country; and a government with a pro-agribusiness agenda but also up for re-election this year. Each group will be led by a spokesperson who will crowdsource a response.

I will present a crisis that affects all three groups. I will move from group to group and ask for a response to both the crisis itself and the responses made previously by the other groups. Each group will have one minute to converge on a response. The other two groups are welcome to plot strategy while waiting for a group to respond.

Are you ready to rumble? Get loose! Get your game face on! It’s on!

SLIDE 22. So here’s the crisis (drawn from actual events): An outbreak of deadly influenza has emerged in chickens on a number of small farms that have contracted out their land and labor to agribusiness. So, these are small farmers working for agribusiness. Up until now only these farmers and the agribusiness they work for knew about the outbreak. But the outbreak is beginning to spread to independent farms nearby.

Agribusiness, you get the first move, what do you do?

Now you need to put on your Machiavellian hats. Think Camorra. You have one minute to come up with a response that advances your agenda. Start throwing out ideas and your spokesperson will choose what she or he likes best. So one minute. Starting now.

The game proceeds. Agribusiness takes an aggressive stance putting the outbreak on the small farmers for failing to match industry standards, even as the outbreak started on its contract farms. The group next proposes the government institute tougher industry-wide biosecurity standards small farmers are least able to afford, driving them out of business.

The independent farmers respond that outside testing showed the outbreaks originated in feed bought from agribusiness. Agribusiness disrupt the independent farmers’ spokesperson with heckles. The government declares the outbreak needs to be quashed regardless of its source and proposes subsidies for cheaper pharmaceuticals. Agribusiness slaps high-fives. A number of major agribusinesses are also pharmaceutical companies.

The game, like real life, is decidedly less a formal debate than freewheeling tussle, as much about the crisis’s ownership as its resolution. Form and content blur.

I followed up the game with a number of logistical questions.

Why didn’t anyone try to take the mic from me or bribe me for it? Why accept the terms of the conflict as I laid them out? Did you send spies or agent provocateurs to another group to learn more about their plans or goad them into making bad decisions? Did you send diplomats to discuss options and co-strategies? There appeared some informal discussion during the game between agribusiness and government.

Or did you feel compelled to play the game in such a way that it be won on its merits instead?  Given what’s at stake do the players in the real world leave it to that kind of chance? On the other hand, some of you might reject the coercive Machiavellian assumptions of the game. The means must instead match the ends, otherwise we only replicate the poisonous politics that led us to the crisis. Or bending the stick perhaps too far, can’t we all just get along? The government spokesperson remarked some members of government wanted to “do the right thing” as it related to the problem. No large organization, however in sync publicly, is without its internal debates and conflicts.

Someone else might ask, “Why play games, dude? Why don’t we go out there and do this shit for reals?”  On the other hand, isn’t this for real? Don’t trade associations and activist groups plot and role-play responses and prep their witnesses? “But, man,” our skeptic might reply, “we’re living in a virtual world: people confuse stakes-free participation with activism. Post an article on Facebook and you deceive yourself that you’ve just stuck it to the Man.”

Such outlets are indeed the genius of the system’s self-preservation. Liberal capitalism can afford its participants room for criticism. Until it can’t. Then, as illustrated by the political class’s reaction to WikiLeaks –sticking it to the Man posting a few articles–the games suddenly change in tone and nature and venue and objective. When governments risk their legitimacy plotting your assassination, playtime, bringing us to this point, is over. And something else begins.

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3 Responses to “Grainmorrah”

  1. I’ve been doing a 2 week vegan diet challenge and this has forced me to think about our food and where it comes from. I didn’t realize that a diet change would take me into political arenas. I’d love to paraphrase some of this aritcle to make this information available to other regular folk. I’m writing about it on IZenMama.com so that I can post to facebook and get the info out there but I want my facts straight first. I’ve read a bit of Brad Wilson’s writing about price floors being a bigger problem than subsidies. Do you know where I can find more plain english writing about the farm bill, how agribusiness works and how it affects the american/world diet and the food we feed our children at schools?
    Thanks,
    Emily

  2. I apologize for the tardy reply, Emily. I’d say start with the basics: the likes of Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and Wendell Berry. The basics, however ground-breaking and well-meaning, suffer critical omissions. In his latest book a surprising Anthony Bourdain, the bad boy traveloguer, excoriates Slow Food’s classist blind eye. Indeed, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal Pollan defended organic food’s high pricing as a matter of principle. The failure is, however, baser, as Pollan/Schlosser efforts at tracking food commodity chains somehow omit an analysis of capitalism. In this direction check out the links in the blog roll on the Farming Pathogens front page to Philip McMichael and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. There is too the Fred Magdoff-edited ‘Agriculture and Food in Crisis’: http://www.monthlyreview.org/books/agriculturefood.php. Also my article in Antipode, linked through https://farmingpathogens.wordpress.com/2009/11/25/breeding-influenza-the-political-virology-of-offshore-farming/. For keeping up with the day-to-day politics of food, click the blog roll for Grist, Civil Eats and Understanding the Farm Bill and Farming Pathogens on Facebook. I hope that helps.

  3. Thank you so much for getting back to me, I will be working on this again next week (paying attention to my other business right now) and I’m so thankful to have these great places to start learning. Thanks again,
    Emily

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