Ethics Final part 11

What About Agribusiness and the Jobs That They Provide American People?

Agribusiness is a major beneficiary from crop subsidies, and has used that government money to become a significant employer in our nation.  Particularly when you think about a few specific, vertically integrated companies that own the seeds they sell to the farmers, and own the land that the farmers care for, and own the factory farms that produce the meat we eat (or don’t), and own the trucking companies to transport their food, and own the grocery stores that sell us the food.  Who are these companies that employ such a significant amount of people in each of our communities?  Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, and Cargill are the three that I would like to focus on.

Within the last year all three of these corporations have released corporate responsibility statements on their websites.  I would like to take a look at some of the language they use to develop their on-line public image.

Monsanto has a pledge to us:  “The Monsanto Pledge is our commitment to how we do business. It is a declaration that compels us to listen more, to consider our actions and their impact broadly, and to lead responsibly. It helps us to convert our values into actions, and to make clear who we are and what we champion.”  They continue with an emphasis placed on their integrity, their ability to dialogue, the fact that they share industry tips with one another to improve efficiency, and the fact that they are transparent and are not hiding any shady business practices.  Belief in this kind of language is easy and provides us with a warm fuzzy feeling.  I would like to believe that Monsanto has received the message from American consumers to be more responsible.  In fact, last year Monsanto was subjected to an anti-trust investigation by the Justice Department. “At issue is how the world’s largest seed company sells and licenses its patented genes. Monsanto has licensing agreements with seed companies that let those companies insert Monsanto genes into about 96 percent of U.S. soybean crops and 80 percent of all corn crops.

Monsanto’s rivals allege that the company uses the licensing agreements to squeeze competitors and control smaller seed companies – an allegation Monsanto denies.

However Monsanto is still doing something that I find to be intrinsically amoral:  Terminator Technology, particular in India.  These are seeds that are genetically modified by Monsanto to grow big (thus high yields), resist pesticides and insects, and then suicide themselves at the end of the growing year eliminating the possibility of a farmer saving a seed for next year.  Of course Monsanto holds the legal patents on these seeds so even if a farmer could salvage a seed, they would still be in violation of a patent infringement.

Archer Daniels Midland released their corporate responsibility statements in November of 2010.  This is evidence again of the effect that consumers can have on holding a corporation responsible.  The language ADM uses to convey an image of responsibility is similar to Monsanto’s.  Here is an excerpt from their CEO and President Patricia Woertz: “Our commitment to growing responsibly is deeply ingrained in our corporate culture; in 2007, it was the force behind our decision to form a Sustainability Steering Committee with senior executives from each of our company’s principal business units. Shortly thereafter, we conducted supply chain and materiality analyses that prompted us to designate energy, water-resource management and supply-chain integrity as key focus areas for our sustainability efforts.”  Once again this language is hopeful and appropriate and seems to demonstrate that they understand the implications of sustainable agriculture.

Historically, ADM has been repeatedly taken to task for polluting.  A 2006 corporate watchdog group submitted that “A single ADM corn processing plant in Clinton, Iowa generated nearly 20,000 tons of pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds in 2004, according to federal records. The EPA considers an ethanol plant as a “major source” of pollution if it produces more than 100 tons of any one pollutant per year, although it has recently proposed increasing that cap to 250 tons.”#  It is the responsible consumer’s role to demand more accountability from such a company.

Cargill has in this last decade, consistently been ranked by Forbes magazine as the largest privately held company in America.  Unfortunately their corporate responsibility language is the weakest of the three featured in this paper.  “At Cargill, corporate responsibility is a process of continually improving our standards, our actions and our processes. Our commitments on business conduct, the environment, people and communities guide our overall approach.”  The language that follows this statement is so generic that it caused me to think that they had simply copied some neighbor’s attempt at corporate responsibility.

Indeed, the research that I have found seems to indict Cargill as the largest agribusiness polluter.  “In the report, one case study shows Cargill’s contribution to the pollution of the Illinois River, which flows from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.  Cargill Meat Solutions’ Beardstown facility on the Illinois River is the second largest dis-charger of toxic chemicals to waterways in Illinois and the 13th largest discharger in the United States, dumping 3 million pounds of toxic chemicals in the Illinois River in 2008 according to the U.S. EPAs Toxic Release Inventory.”

Another example:  “Water pollution, wastewater pretreatment, and solid waste violations at Cargill’s biodiesel facility in Iowa Falls have netted the agricultural products giant a $100,000 civil penalty.”  One further example:  “Large-scale farming in Illinois is polluting at levels comparable to industry and should be regulated in similar ways, says a report by Environment Illinois. The dispute continues a controversy over a trend in recent years toward larger farms across the U.S. Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, have been criticized for keeping hundreds or thousands of animals in confined areas and for creating huge manure ponds that often leach into and pollute rivers.  But family farmers still make up the vast majority of agricultural operations in the state, according to the Illinois Farm Bureau and they oppose any more regulation, whether for big or small operations.

Farmer self-regulation is clearly not cutting it, “Chris Petersen of Clear Lake, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, said voluntary programs Iowa and other states have hoped would solve farm-related pollution have fallen short. “Voluntary compliance needs to be accelerated,” Petersen said. “The current system is not sustainable.’”

In my research for this section of the paper, I used the “contact us” section of these three corporations’ websites.  I asked the same question to each, phrased “I am an ethics student in seminary doing a paper on ethical farm practices.  I’m thankful for your corporate responsibility statements as they are very helpful, and I’m hoping that you might provide me with a few specific examples as to how your company is living out these statements.”  I have yet to hear back from any of them.  [Update:  It has now been two months and I still haven’t received a reply.]

What does all of this talk of corporate responsibility and pollution have to do with crop subsidies?  Fundamentally, these huge agribusinesses became the size they are by taking the subsidies given to them by our government and investing them in future private growth.  This is sometimes referred to as “corporate welfare.”  Their “bottom line” has everything to do with maximizing their profit margins, regardless of the environmental and social costs.  Unfortunately the larger they’ve grown, the more damage they have (willingly, or unwillingly) inflicted on the system, environment, and human health.


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