Issue 244: February 2007

in

 

More ways than one

The ruling market ideology is adamant that there is only one way to do business – its way. The “best practices” ideology follows suit. But best for whom? At what cost?  If bio-diversity is essential, why isn’t business-diversity?

Ethanol, produced to fuel North America’s obsession with the private automobile, threatens to reduce the corn-soy ‘rotation’ to the extreme monoculture of corn after corn, at least in the US corn-belt. By the same token, monoculture canola may well push other crops aside to produce biodiesel to keep the trucks on the road hauling industrial food halfway around the world to maintain the appearance of diversity in our supermarkets. (We will not dwell on the fact that these three crops are almost all transgenic!)  Wheat, for the moment at least, retains its primary identity as a food for people.

Use of the term ‘industrial’ to describe North American agriculture seems to be widely accepted these days without protest.  Its practitioners will argue that there is no alternative, however much they may lament the loss of neighbours and the financial precariousness of industrial production maintained only by subsidies.  Monoculture production with massive amounts of purchased inputs – seed, agrotoxins, synthetic fertilizers and credit – is simply assumed to the only real way to feed the world. (The conflict between feeding people and feeding automobiles is only now being noticed, along with the different view of the world and diverse cultural practices offered by organic agriculture.)


truck

A single model for the business of agricultural production as well as for agricultural production itself is not really surprising given the heavily dominant ideology of capital that seeks to rule the world. One could suggest that it all began with Margaret Thatcher in Britain and the slogan, “I’m all right, Jack” with its unspoken “so screw you,” but we actually have to go back a few centuries to understand the origins of this individualism and its capitalist expression in “Western Civilization.” Don’t worry, we’re not going to do that here! We’ll just note the assumption that Western Civilization, with its quaint approach to the world and its inhabitants, is the only reasonable (and to believers, the only possible) world view, which is the context for the notion that there is only one way to do business.

It used to be that businesses succeeded by serving their customers. They provided what people needed and wanted, with advertising functioning primarily as a ‘notice of availability.’ It was accepted that there would be a variety of businesses with similar merchandise, competing with one another, to be sure, but within what one might call a ‘business community’. There were also a large number of effective co-operatives, partnerships and enterprises that provided a diversity of business models. One size did not fit all.

Now the mark of success is getting rid of your competitors, either by buying them out or by forcing them out of business. Quarterly reports, shareholder value, the stock market, mergers and acquisitions (m&a) and absolutely gross executive incomes are now the order of the day.

On the farm front, there were a multitude of sizes and variety of farm enterprises, called simply ‘farms’, not ‘farm businesses’ or ‘operations.’  They were to a great extent self-sufficient and resilient, and not infrequently supported one another in such large tasks as barn-building. Until, that is, the era of corporate growth and greed set in and being competitive became the golden rule of business. Farmers were encouraged, enticed and bribed into thinking of themselves as farm businessmen out to make a profit, even when they were not making a living wage, much less a profit after all expenses were paid. Caught in the cost-price squeeze, farms, like the formerly small and medium-size businesses, began to grow in size, with farmers being encouraged to buy out their neighbours and expand their ‘operations’ in the name of efficiency (for big machinery). Cash flow and the ability to obtain and carry a large debt became the measure of success, not net family income and a healthy diversified community economy. I remember being advised by a local town councillor (himself a farmer) that we should turn our farm into a museum because we had such a variety of activities on our small farm. Never mind that fact that we were one of the largest sheep farms in the east at the time and actually making a living with our farming.

In the view of this farmer-politician, the only valid business structure was one that placed the accumulation of wealth at the pinnacle of achievement. This is deemed to maximize “economic growth” which is the summum bonum, the greatest good. We are not supposed to ask for whom is this the greatest good, but if we read the business press we will quickly notice that it is the greatest good of the shareholders, not the public or the society or even the economy. Henry Ford understood the contradiction between  maximizing short-term profit and the health of the economy as a whole; he insisted on paying his workers enough for them to be his customers as well as his employees. Now globalized capital seeks to utilize the cheapest labour possible, wherever it can be found, including migrant and undocumented workers, in order to maximize profits. The result is a deepening inequity both between and within countries – the unmistakable harbinger of the failure of the economy.

So back to agriculture. Around 1980, when we organized the Northumberland Lamb Marketing Coop, we did not choose the conventional business model for a coop, which was really just another capitalist business model under a different name. Rather, we adopted a business model dedicated to the current welfare of the participants in the business – all the sheep farmers who sold their lambs through the co-op – and not to the welfare of the co-op itself through  capital accumulation.  We did not try to drive anyone out of business but rather to provide service and ‘product’ better than anyone else and provide the best return we could to the farmers. (Northumberlamb is still functioning on the same principles.)

It is unfortunate that today the monoculture of capitalist business structures dominates the agricultural scene just as monoculture industrial agricultural production dominates the landscape. It is even sadder to see the marketing of the diversity of organic foods following the same capitalist model, as if there were no alternative. Farmers, organic included, seem to feel that they have no choice but to follow the dominant business model and buy out or bankrupt their ‘competitors’ if they are to be successful.

What we desperately need are not more capitalist entrepreneurs, but social entrepreneurs, people who have the imagination and skills to put the essential pieces of a business together in a way that actually serves the common good, as Northumberlamb did. As the old saying has it, there are more ways than one to skin a cat.

cat skin

The Northumberlamb story, as told by Brewster and Cathleen Kneen at the Vancouver food security conference in October 2006,  can be heard by going to: www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/cfsc.htm  and clicking on the link. Thanks to Jon Steinman for excellent recording

 

#244: February 2007 TOC
More ways than one: we examine the case for a diversity of business models
National market share of food sales, 2005 (table)
Not just food and drink: Van Houtte coffee company is looking to break itself up despite profitablity
Cargill: Performing its patriotic duty -- producing ethanol
         Trans-fat free fats -- which are genetically engineered
Big Finance and Bad Ideas: Miguel Altieri and Eric Holt-Gimenez critique the $500 million University of California program on biofuels
Milk without Hormones: Posilac-free milk marketed as 'organic light'
More than just seeds: theological commentary from "Life-giving Agriculture" conference
"Mother-Baby" beats GMOs: researcher-farmer partnership has developed stress-tolerant maize
CWB ... the latest dirt: government appoints CWB Board president but he hasn't been paid yet
Creaming Off the Crop: West African farmers critique Bt cotton

 

ram