Thursday, November 11, 2010

Globaloney Watch: Japan's Farmers in the Crosshairs

Japan's farmers are upset over plans to lower trade barriers to foreign agricultural goods. As usual, The New York Times tends to take the side of globalization, with the article subtly suggesting that Japan's farmers must get with the program and allow themselves to compete against foreign agribusiness, including American agribusiness. Isn't it interesting that it is always the little guy that has to change in order to survive? What would huge corporations like, say, the Walt Disney Company, do without ample intellectual property law protection? Heck, what would American agribusinesses do without their subsidies? The reality is that globalization is a system of managed corporate buccaneering. It is not some kind of natural process, like the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. Presenting globalization as an unstoppable force of nature helps the peddlers of globaloney to characterize their opponents as sentimentalists and fools.

That being said, I can understand why some consumers and businessmen might be supportive of free trade. The prospect of cheaper food must be attractive to many Japanese consumers. But what about the family farmers? Are they worth fighting for? If the United States had a system similar to Japan's, perhaps freer trade might be warranted. But the U.S. is home to big agribusinesses that will likely use their state subsidies and other state-derived weapons to leverage economies of scale and scope against little producers like Atsushi Kono, our friend from Hokkaido mentioned in the article. Is this fair? Is it fair that the big players are allowed to use their state benefits to destroy their smaller rivals? Is it so wrong for the little fellows to ask for protection from the government when they face unfair competition? 

Populists ought to emphasize how globalization and "free" trade are rigged in favor of the powerful. Call the corporations out on their hypocrisy. If Atsushi Kono must give up his help from the state, then Monsanto should do the same. Markets work best when they are composed of many different players, roughly equal in strength. The current system of globalization is fast enslaving the world to a handful of super corporations, with their government toadies helping pave the way. The only way forward is to reject the current free trade orthodoxy and insist on an economic system that puts people ahead of profits.


  1. Free trade in agriculture strikes me as lunacy. A state is a vehicle to produce food and security. Farms are the backbone of proper countries. Making oneself dependent on agribusinesses of no fixed abode, faraway farmers who are as likely to sell to India and China as here, and the oil price (becaue of transport and fertiliser) is daft. Ruining public diets in pursuit of allocative efficiency in markets is silly, and the social and environmental wreckage of a transformation of small farms into mortgaged satraps of faithless absentee corporations, monopoly technologies, and monopsony supermarkets is, well...words fail me.

    I also agree wholeheartedly with you when you note how feudal and dependent on state subsidies of one sort or another many big corporations are. Free-market Capitalism might be a system we could criticise--if we could ever find an example of it!

  2. Hi Mr. Meenagh,

    Thanks for the comment! I didn't think of the dietary aspect of all of this. In the United States we have recently had a number of food scares related to factory farming. The last one involved something like 380,000,000 eggs from one farm in Iowa that supplied big chain stores in many different states and under several different brand labels. The result was a nation-wide egg scare after hundreds of people became ill from salmonella.

    While I don't doubt that some small producers may be unhealthy, at least with small, local farms the contamination can only spread so far. Now one big factory farm can poison an entire national food supply. Imagine what could happen when the factory farm system becomes more globalized. One big factory farm in the United States or wherever could contaminate the food products consumed by millions of people all over the world.

  3. It's not just that. If you have an impoverished or debt-ridden working and middle class who are time-poor, and who within the bounds of geography or their professions are confined to monopsony employers, they need to eat quickly and with the appearance of satisfaction. Products laden with hormonal beef, oil-fertilised and genetically modified wheat, and subsidised corn syrup, from indebted factory farms more or less dancing to the tune of Cargill and ADM, do the trick. Then people get fat and need your autos and gyms and coffees and stimulants, and attract the moral disapproval of your shills in the press.

    I write 'your'; I am no conspiracy theorist and I personalise merely to illustrate. These are emergent properties of a system of exploitation that benefits very few, and which is a natural consequence of an unbalanced 'bastard capitalism' which is really a form of feudalism. I think that particular political attitudes and social problems arise from it too. The one consolation--and it is scant--is that this must not long endure, but when I state that, I can't help thinking that slavery lasted longer and the worser thing is that it could all continue on. Such is the egregious badness of it at the minute though--the incipient crisis--I doubt it!

    I've added your site to my blogroll by the way, hope that you do not mind.

  4. I agree. The whole system of capitalist "growth" seems to be based on multiplying things that are bad for us. We eat bad food so we need to go and buy products to make us healthier, we go to gyms, buy books on getting slim, buy workout videos, etc. So much of GDP growth is actually made up of socially harmful activity or products.

    Thank you! I do not mind at all. May I add your blog to my blogroll?

  5. Please do!

    I worked in a McDonalds plant one summer (following on from a steelworks a few summers before) and the contrast was immense. Steel was dangerous, but useful, and the work was appropriately heavy. Just about everything made in the food plant, I presume because it was concentrated and alien in smell to me, and most of the processes involved, were dangerous.
    A famous soft drink's central ingredient, for instance, seemed to come in from New Jersey in what looked like plastic bio-hazard containers. I can't claim the experience put me off my vices, but I'm glad that, having seen spills, my insides are not made out of steel, floors, paint, metal or paper, since they'd be dissolved by now if they were.

  6. Hi Martin,

    I once had a friend who worked in an Arby's and he said the meat comes in a kind of paste until it is heated in a microwave oven and then transformed into a more recognizable meat state. A little while ago I think there was also a news story about McDonald's Chicken McNuggets also being some kind of paste at one point.

    I admit that I actually like some kinds of fast food, Wendy's being my favorite. But now I am trying to stay away from the stuff, although it is hard when you are rushing around for work and it is cheap and convenient and easy to eat on a train or in the car. I have recently tried bananas as a healthy but also convenient substitute "on the go" food. Of course, if we lived in a less hurried world, perhaps we would not feel so guilty eating a real lunch at a normal pace.