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Rick Friday and the Agribusiness Behemoth

Friday CEO cartoon

You may have seen this comic on social or traditional media recently. But you didn’t see it in Farm News. Last week Rick Friday was fired from the paper that had employed him for 21 years after his cartoon comparing the incomes of agribusiness CEOs and Iowa farmers prompted an unnamed seed company to pull their advertising. It reads like your typical story of the little guy crushed for speaking truth to power (the numbers are defensible), and in a sense it is. But I see it more as an symptom of the disease of the Conventional Food System itself.

Sure, you could blame the newspaper for caving in and firing him, but that seed company ad may have meant the difference between folding and continuing to serve 24,000 Iowa farmers. You could certainly blame the seed company, but don’t forget that American corporations have a legal responsibility to serve their shareholders. If that seed company were, perchance, the one he called out in his cartoon, for example, that CEO wouldn’t be worth a fraction of the $12.8 million salary that it pays him if he did not explicitly or implicitly sanction the withdrawal of support from a publication that might make his customers turn against him. Short of breaking the law or doing something so egregious and transparent that the consumer backlash would significantly decrease sales, profit is pretty much the only thing that can matter to these corporations. Because it legally has to be.[i]

And it’s not just the rules of corporations that preclude ethical behavior. It’s the twisted interdependence within the Industrial Agriculture system itself. The three companies that Friday named all depend upon and support one another. Seeds from one company are tailored to be resistant to specific herbicides manufactured with chemicals from the chemical company. In order to use these seeds and synthetic additives effectively, mono-cropping is necessary. In order to make enough money from a single crop to live on, it has to be planted in mass quantities. In order to process mass quantities of mono-crops, you need big, expensive machinery. In order to pay for that machinery, you have to keep churning out that crop. The system has to keep operating as-is in order for each of these companies to thrive, so they do what they can to keep it going.

So I can’t really blame the corporations for Friday’s fate or the countless other far-reaching and deadly consequences of the conventional food system. They may have helped create it, but now they’re as trapped as anyone. Until a triple bottom line becomes the measurement for success, practices will continue to be ecologically and socially destructive. Since we see no moves to make the shift to that standard in the conventional food system, we’ve gone rogue. We can’t operate a symbiotic agriculture within the current food system, so we’re building a new, regional food system. Profit is great; we’re all for it, but if it comes at the expense of the health of the people and the land, it’s going to be short-lived and will ultimately profit no one.

 

[i] Like everything in law, there is room for alternate interpretations on what the obligation to shareholders actually means. Feel free to dig into that, but the answer is overwhelmingly “maximize profits” even if only because that’s easiest to quantify.

 

 

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