Those who preach that the ‘free’ market is the best solution to everything tend to be those who benefit from the fact it is distorted in their favour. Nowhere is this truer than in the modern industrialized food business, where a tight and ruthless agribusiness oligopoly has exploited these distortions to staggering advantage over the public interest. The chart above shows how the system works, and why it doesn’t.
Market purists argue that business cannot be put in an impossible conflict of interest by having to meet the needs of both shareholders and the public. We have a political system, they assert, that balances the interest of corporations (to maximize short-term profit for shareholders) with the interest of the public (to maximize their personal and collective well-being). The politicians and judges, who, it is claimed, are beholden equally to both groups, have the challenge of balancing these clearly conflicting interests. If they get the balance wrong, the citizens will vote them out or the shareholders will starve their re-election campaigns, and they’ll be replaced with a crew who will do the job right.
So in the case of agribusiness, it is in the interest of the food production oligopoly to squeeze out all family farms and replace them with massive factory farms that inflict unimaginable suffering on farm animals and deplete the soil until it is dust and needs to be ‘replenished’ with oil-based fertilizers and soaked in oil-based chemical pesticides and herbicides. In order to be viable, agribusiness (in North America alone) then needs to be subsidized to the tune of $150B/year. To keep costs down and profits up, the agribusiness oligopoly uses the cheapest possible ingredients (notably corn, corn sugars and other low-nutrition ‘fillers’) and adds dangerous chemicals that make foods look better than they really are, taste different than they really do, addict the customer on sugar and salt, and have the micronutrients processed out of them. They then collude to charge the public as much as possible for this processed garbage.
Oh, and the factory farms are also the breeding ground for poultry flu.
Their political actions to achieve this objective include lobbying for deregulation, for immunity from prosecution by farmers whose livelihoods have been destroyed and by a chemically poisoned, nutrition-starved, price-gouged public, and for the aforementioned massive subsidies. They also mount fierce opposition to new regulations drafted in the public interest.
On the other side, it is in the interest of the public to have prosperous, local, organic family farms that do not inflict suffering and chemical poisoning on farm animals and do not exhaust and poison the soil, producing healthy and safe foods. The political actions to achieve this include lobbying for regulation against the excesses of the agribusiness oligopoly, and for enforcement of existing regulations and full disclosure of what agribusiness is doing and what is in (and not in) their foods. And the pursuit of class actions when the politicians fall down on their job as regulators.
Theoretically, these incompatible objectives and means, and conflicting lobbying actions are reviewed and balanced by politicians who must weigh the personal financial consequences of pissing off the oligopoly against the political consequences of pissing off the voters.
Alas, the theory doesn’t work in practice. The oligopoly has a lot more resources to apply to tip the balance in their favour, shown in the lower part of the graphic above. They can muzzle the mainstream media, which depend heavily on them for advertising dollars, not to investigate or report on agribusiness misdeeds (fortunately we still have Oligopoly Watch). They can get politicians to simply ignore the regulations, citing a shortage of inspectors. This is perfect for politicians: They can placate the public by passing stiff regulations that seemingly favour the public interest, and at the same time placate the oligopoly by ignoring the regulations. This is how political business is done all the time in struggling nations (Mexico has some of the strongest environmental laws in the world, none of them enforced), and now the practice is catching on in affluent nations as well.
The oligopoly can also intimidate political opponents by running huge (and tax-deductible) public advertising campaigns specifically directed against them under the name of anonymous, phony ‘public interest groups’ with Orwellian names. And they can have their armies of lawyers threaten farmers and the public with crippling lawsuits if they utter a peep of complaint, while their huge advertising campaigns are full of blatant lies that pander to public ignorance, fear, and aversion to bad news that doesn’t have a simple fix.
So you end up with a citizenry which is largely ignorant and misinformed, and fearful of prosecution. The public lobbying ends up being done by a small group of informed progressives on behalf of a public that is unaware, unappreciative and unsupportive of their efforts, and not prepared to use their votes when that lobbying fails (as it increasingly does) to counter the more extensive, powerful, expensive and effective campaigns of agribusiness.
The result is what we have now: An agribusiness oligopoly that is obscenely subsidized with handouts from political parties grateful for the oligopoly’s generous campaign contributions. Factory farms that inflict horrific suffering. Polluted air, water, soil and food. Food that is unhealthy and even dangerous, virtually devoid of nutritional value. And political parties complicit in the continuation of this deliberate poisoning of our bodies and our environment.
You could develop a similar chart for the corporatist oligopolies of just about every other industry. The Big Pharma oligopoly, for example, is a huge beneficiary of a poisoned and malnourished public ñ more chronic diseases to come up with expensive drugs to combat for lifetimes.
There are two possible approaches to trying to restore the balance so that the public interest at least has a fighting chance:
There are compelling reasons why neither will ever come about, and why neither would work even if it did. If fixing this complex problem was easy, someone would have already proposed a solution and some vanguard jurisdictions would have acted on it. But this is a global problem, and no one has found an answer to it. There may be no answer, even if we can one day prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the agribusiness oligopoly’s actions kill thousands of people every day.
But getting more people to be aware of the problem, and to realize that the ‘market’ is utterly incapable of resolving it in any balanced way, is astart. One step at a time.
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Preparing for Civilization's End:
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Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
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A Culture of Fear
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A Future Without Us
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Complexity and Collapse
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A Harvest of Myths
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If I Only Had 37 Days
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If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
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