Corporate rights and power (15/9/2005)

Excellent articles with constant references to the biotech industry.

Addressing structure of rights and power
Skip Spitzer
Financial Express, 9/16/2005

A transition to genuinely sustainable agriculture must confront the problem of corporate power. The growth of the corporate sector and the accumulation of extraordinary amounts of private wealth have radically transformed the role of the corporation. Large corporations have, in fact, become decisive players in determining the organisation of society overall.

In the US, corporations produce 88% of private sector output, leaving basic decision-making about product development, resource use, production processes, and use of labour largely in corporate hands. Just 1.0% of US corporations produce 80% of private sector output, and worldwide, only 200 corporations -- 82 of them US-based and mostly larger than many national economies -- control well over a quarter of the world's economic activity. In addition, many corporations are linked with other firms via owners, board directors, and senior managers who also own, direct and manage other corporations.

Corporations seek to maintain and expand their dominance via financial Support for political candidates and office holders. One internal document of the Chemical Manufacturer's Association revealed the association's strategy of using, political action committees to "upgrade the Congress" and "improve access to members." Big companies also influence ballot initiatives with financial support, such as the more than 4.0 million dollars agribusiness spent to defeat the 2002 Oregon citizens initiative to label genetically engineered food.

High-level employees commonly rotate through a "revolving door" between industry and the public agencies that regulate them, providing insider know-how and friendly connections through which rules can be bent and loopholes exploited. Through trade associations, consultants, and in-house specialists, corporations lobby government decision-makers and even provide them with policy drafts. For example, in 2000, Representative Richard Pombo introduced a House bill on pesticide regulation that was a nearly word-forward duplicate of a 1999 draft by an industry consulting firm. To discourage liability suits and silence critics, large firms sometimes file SLAPP suits-so-called "strategic lawsuits against public participation." Even where corporations do not actively exert influence, holders of high office themselves frequently have significant holdings in large corporations or other financial ties or histories that predispose them to industry-friendly positions. For example, US Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman was a director of the biotech company Calgene (now owned by Monsanto) and served on the International Policy Council on Agriculture, Food and Trade, a group funded by Caraill, Nestle, Kraft, and Archer Daniels Midland.

Corporations influence media reporting by providing press releases and "expert" sources, lobbying reporters, and threatening legal action. For example, Monsanto repeatedly pressured Fox News over a story about the health risks of its recombinant (genetically engineered) Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH). Fox killed the project and ultimately fired the reporters. The average adult in the US watches 21,000 television ads annually, 75% of them paid for by the 100 largest corporations. Thus, the public is far more likely to know Archer Daniels Midland as the "supermarket to the world," rather than as a multinational grain giant with a history of political contributions and favours, price fixing, and government subsidies.

Corporations influence science and research by funding university research and by funding research institutes and policy think tanks. The American Council on Science and Health-a think tank receiving 40 to 76% of its funding from corporations Such as Dow Chemical, DuPont, and Monsanto -- promotes the idea that concerns about pesticides like DDT and Alar are "unfounded health scares." Many researchers sit on corporate boards, own stock and have other financial ties to the companies to which their research relates.

Corporations provide schools with educational material, advice, teachers, presentations, exhibits, contests, and awards. Lifetime Learning Systems advertises: Coming from school, all these materials carry an extra measure of credibility that gives your message added weight. Imagine millions of students discussing your product in class. Imagine their teachers presenting your organisation's point of view.

What are the implications of allowing enormous companies around the world, pursuing little more than their own profitability, to exert such broad influence nationally and globally and to create and maintain an industrial food system that deeply afflicts nature and people?

Rachel Carson is often credited with sparking the modern environmental movement in the US and elsewhere by raising awareness about DDT and other chemicals in her book Silent Spring. But many environmental movements may have missed an essential message when she wrote of "an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make money, at whatever cost to others, is seldom challenged."

Tackling the threat to public and environmental welfare is not just a matter of curbing particular corporate harms, or even creating and promoting sustainable alternatives. Ultimately, the structure of corporate rights and power must be addressed. Learning how to make meaningful change in the short-term while advancing the longer-term task of corporate reform is one of the key challenges for progressive movements today.

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