Transnational Corporations, Factory Farms and the Economic Colonization of Rural America

John Ikerd

In 2011, Mar­garet Wheat­ley, a wide­ly respect­ed schol­ar and one of the lead­ing thinkers in the Unit­ed States on mat­ters of insti­tu­tion­al and cul­tur­al change, iden­ti­fied three major trends shap­ing U.S. society:

1) A grow­ing sense of impo­tence and dread about the state of the nation,”

2) The real­iza­tion that infor­ma­tion doesn’t change minds anymore.”

3) The clar­i­ty that the world changes through local com­mu­ni­ties tak­ing action — that there is no pow­er for change greater than a com­mu­ni­ty tak­ing its future into its own hands.”

I agree with Wheat­ley. Her rev­e­la­tions are more rel­e­vant to rur­al Amer­i­ca today than in 2011.

First, I think a grow­ing sense of impo­tence and dread” accu­rate­ly describes the pre­vail­ing mood of peo­ple in rur­al Amer­i­ca. Fred Kirschen­mann, a dis­tin­guished schol­ar at the Leopold Cen­ter at Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty, has observed that the pre­dom­i­nant atti­tude toward rur­al com­mu­ni­ties is that they have no future. In fact, this atti­tude seems to pre­vail even with­in rur­al communities.” 

He quot­ed from a 1991 sur­vey con­duct­ed in sev­er­al Mid­west­ern rur­al com­mu­ni­ties indi­cat­ing that peo­ple in most rur­al towns har­bored one of two visions for their com­mu­ni­ties. One vision sees their town’s death as inevitable due to eco­nom­ic decline.” The oth­er vision is also of a dying town” with only a fad­ing hope that they can keep the town alive by attract­ing indus­try.” The widen­ing rur­al-urban divide since the ear­ly 1990s seems to con­firm a tran­si­tion in rur­al atti­tudes from impo­tence and dread to des­per­a­tion and anger.

Sec­ond­ly, I agree that infor­ma­tion no longer changes minds, cer­tain­ly not con­cern­ing issues such as glob­al cli­mate change, species extinc­tion or genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied organ­isms (GMOs). For exam­ple, for decades the pro­po­nents of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture called for deci­sions based on sound sci­ence.” The ear­ly bits of research avail­able on this con­tro­ver­sial issue had come from the agri­cul­tur­al col­leges — the aca­d­e­m­ic allies of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture. Now, a large and grow­ing body of sci­en­tif­ic infor­ma­tion from oth­er respect­ed aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions pro­vides com­pelling evi­dence of the neg­a­tive eco­log­i­cal, social and eco­nom­ic impacts of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture on rur­al Amer­i­ca. The response of the agri­cul­tur­al estab­lish­ment,” and even the agri­cul­tur­al aca­d­e­m­ic com­mu­ni­ty, has been denial or rejection.

I agree also with Wheat­ley that any hope for a pos­i­tive future for rur­al Amer­i­ca depends on local com­mu­ni­ties tak­ing action — rur­al peo­ple tak­ing their future in their own hands. In order for peo­ple in rur­al areas to shape their own des­tiny, they must be will­ing and able to work togeth­er for the com­mon good of their com­mu­ni­ties. But first, they must come to a com­mon under­stand­ing and accep­tance of the ulti­mate source or root cause of rur­al eco­nom­ic, social, and eco­log­i­cal degra­da­tion and depletion.

The eco­nom­ic col­o­niza­tion of rur­al America

The sense of impo­tence and dread in rur­al Amer­i­ca is a con­se­quence of decades of eco­nom­ic extrac­tion and exploita­tion car­ried out in the guise of rur­al eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment. Rur­al areas are suf­fer­ing the con­se­quences of pro­longed eco­nom­ic col­o­niza­tion” — a term typ­i­cal­ly used in ref­er­ence to neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment in nations pre­vi­ous­ly col­o­nized polit­i­cal­ly. Rather than being col­o­nized by nation­al gov­ern­ments, most eco­nom­ic col­o­niza­tion today in rur­al Amer­i­ca, and indeed in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties around the world, is car­ried out by multi­na­tion­al corporations.

Much like colo­nial empires of the past, transna­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions have been extend­ing their eco­nom­ic sov­er­eign­ty over the affairs of peo­ple in rur­al places all around the globe. Rur­al peo­ple are los­ing their sov­er­eign­ty, as cor­po­ra­tions use their eco­nom­ic pow­er to dom­i­nate local economies and gain con­trol of local gov­ern­ments. Irre­place­able pre­cious rur­al resources, includ­ing rur­al peo­ple and cul­tures, are being exploit­ed — not to ben­e­fit rur­al peo­ple but to increase the wealth of cor­po­rate investors. These cor­po­ra­tions are pure­ly eco­nom­ic enti­ties with no capac­i­ty for com­mit­ment to the future of rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. Their only inter­est is in extract­ing the remain­ing eco­nom­ic wealth from rur­al areas. This is clas­sic eco­nom­ic colonialism.

A strip­mine in the Mont­gomery Creek area of Per­ry Coun­ty, Ky. (Pho­to / Cap­tion: Geoff Oliv­er Bug­bee / The Solu­tions Jour­nal)

His­tor­i­cal­ly, polit­i­cal colo­nial­ism was defend­ed by the eth­no­cen­tric belief that the moral val­ues of the col­o­niz­er were supe­ri­or to those of the col­o­nized — that those col­o­nized ulti­mate­ly would ben­e­fit from the process of civ­i­liza­tion. Today, eco­nom­ic colo­nial­iza­tion is defend­ed by the urban-cen­tric belief that rur­al peo­ple are inca­pable of devel­op­ing their own economies and must rely on out­side invest­ment for rur­al eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment; that cor­po­rate invest­ments will bring bad­ly need­ed jobs and local income and will expand local tax bases; that eco­nom­i­cal­ly depressed rur­al com­mu­ni­ties will be afford­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty for bet­ter schools, bet­ter health care, and expand­ed social ser­vices, and will attract a greater vari­ety of retail busi­ness­es. These are the same basic promis­es made to pre­vi­ous polit­i­cal colonies.

In gen­er­al, peo­ple in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties are led to believe they have been left behind by the rest of soci­ety, and their accep­tance ofout­side cor­po­rate invest­ments is the only means by which they can hope to catch up. In cas­es where promis­es of pros­per­i­ty have failed to per­suade the peo­ple, cor­po­ra­tions have resort­ed to eco­nom­ic favors promised to local lead­ers or out­right bribery.” If all else fails, they sim­ply refer to com­merce laws to claim the eco­nom­ic right to force their way into com­mu­ni­ties where they are unwant­ed. These are the same basic strate­gies colo­nial empires have used with the indige­nous peo­ples of their colonies through­out history.

A British colo­nial­ist being car­ried on the backs of locals. (Image: qua​tr​.us)

After decades of so-called devel­op­ment, pre­vi­ous polit­i­cal colonies were left in sham­bles. Indige­nous social and polit­i­cal struc­tures were destroyed, leav­ing the peo­ple with no foun­da­tion for reestab­lish­ing self-gov­ern­ment to address the shame­ful lega­cy of colo­nial­ism. Tra­di­tion­al ways of life were destroyed, cul­tures were lost, eco­nom­ic resources were deplet­ed, and nat­ur­al envi­ron­ments were degrad­ed and pol­lut­ed with the tox­ic wastes of indus­tri­al extrac­tion and exploitation.

Admit­ted­ly, in some cas­es, col­o­niza­tion has brought eco­nom­ic and social ben­e­fits — at least to some peo­ple. In these cas­es, such as North Amer­i­ca and Aus­tralia, the indige­nous pop­u­la­tions were suf­fi­cient­ly small to be essen­tial­ly elim­i­nat­ed by colo­nial immi­grants. The peo­ple native to these coun­tries were giv­en a choice of assim­i­la­tion or anni­hi­la­tion. The indige­nous peo­ple of vir­tu­al­ly every pre­vi­ous­ly col­o­nized coun­try of the world, includ­ing the Unit­ed States, still har­bor deep resent­ment of their for­mer colo­nial masters.

Like slav­ery, polit­i­cal col­o­niza­tion even­tu­al­ly became moral­ly unac­cept­able to civ­i­lized soci­ety. It was abol­ished because it became obvi­ous that col­o­niza­tion wasn’t about civ­i­liza­tion; it was about exploita­tion. How­ev­er, the eco­nom­ic col­o­niza­tion of rur­al areas con­tin­ues vir­tu­al­ly unchecked every­where, includ­ing rur­al America.

Iron­i­cal­ly, the rur­al descen­dants of past polit­i­cal col­o­niz­ers have become the col­o­nized: the unwit­ting vic­tims of eco­nom­ic col­o­niza­tion. The Euro­pean colonists first set­tled in rur­al Amer­i­ca to exploit the eco­nom­ic wealth of its wildlife, tim­ber, and min­er­als that had been left intact by Native Amer­i­cans. Once the resources in par­tic­u­lar places were used up or deplet­ed of eco­nom­ic val­ue, the exploiters moved on. Only ghost towns” remained where many fur trad­ing, log­ging and min­ing towns had once thrived. Today, many farm­ing towns are strug­gling to sur­vive and avoid becom­ing the new ghost towns of Amer­i­can history.

Dur­ing the late 20th cen­tu­ry, man­u­fac­tur­ing plants were attract­ed to rur­al areas by a strong work eth­ic and low wages — a lega­cy of farm fam­i­lies dis­placed by agri­cul­tur­al indus­tri­al­iza­tion. When rur­al peo­ple began demand­ing a liv­ing wage, multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions found peo­ple in oth­er coun­tries who would work hard­er for less mon­ey. Many rur­al com­mu­ni­ties were left with only emp­ty fac­to­ries and peo­ple who no longer remem­bered how to make a liv­ing for themselves.

The cov­er sto­ry of the July 1, 1935 issue of Forbes asks Who Own Amer­i­ca’s Cor­po­ra­tions?” (Image: Forbes Mag­a­zine Cov­ers)

Whether inten­tion­al or coin­ci­den­tal, indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture has become a means of col­o­niz­ing rur­al areas. As with oth­er indus­tries, the indus­tri­al prac­tices of cor­po­rate agri­cul­ture invari­ably erode the fer­til­i­ty of the soil through inten­sive cul­ti­va­tion, and poi­son the air and water with chem­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal wastes. Cor­po­rate con­tracts replace think­ing, car­ing farm­ers with trac­tor dri­vers and hog house jan­i­tors. Once the resources of rur­al Amer­i­ca have been deplet­ed, the cor­po­ra­tions will sim­ply move their oper­a­tions to oth­er areas of the world where resources are more pro­duc­tive, and land and labor costs are cheap­er. Rur­al com­mu­ni­ties will be left with deplet­ed soils and aquifers, streams and ground­wa­ter pol­lut­ed with agri­cul­tur­al chem­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal wastes, and farm­ers who no longer know how to farm.

Today, rur­al com­mu­ni­ties com­pete for pris­ons, urban land­fills, tox­ic waste incin­er­a­tors, nuclear waste sites, ani­mal slaugh­ter plants and giant con­fine­ment ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tions. All of these so-called eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties are noth­ing more than pro­vid­ing places to dump the human, chem­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal wastes cre­at­ed by an extrac­tive, exploita­tive econ­o­my. As in indige­nous cul­tures of the past, the chil­dren of many rur­al fam­i­lies are aban­don­ing rur­al com­mu­ni­ties for bet­ter eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties and a more desir­able qual­i­ty of life in the cities.

This kind of rur­al eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment is eco­nom­ic colo­nial­ism — pure and sim­ply. With today’s trend toward eco­nom­ic glob­al­iza­tion, the cor­po­rate col­o­niza­tion of rur­al areas seems des­tined to spread to every cor­ner of the world, until every remain­ing pock­et of nat­ur­al wealth has been extract­ed from every rur­al place in the world. This kind of rur­al eco­nom­ic extrac­tion and exploita­tion quite sim­ply is not sustainable.

The rem­nant rur­al pop­u­la­tions who still cling to the indige­nous rur­al Amer­i­can cul­ture have every rea­son to har­bor feel­ings of dis­trust, resent­ment and even hatred of the out­siders they iden­ti­fy with their oppres­sors. Like the rem­nant indige­nous peo­ple of pre­vi­ous polit­i­cal colonies, they have fought long, cost­ly, des­per­ate bat­tles to pre­serve their cho­sen way of life. They have sur­vived thus far through fierce inde­pen­dence and self-reliance.

In defi­ance of urban cul­ture, some rur­al folks have cre­at­ed their own ver­sion of an afflu­ent soci­ety,” with big 4×4 pick­up trucks; jeans, hats/​caps, boots and in-your-face coun­try music. They eat giant ham­burg­ers to show their dis­dain for healthy eat­ing.” They drink real beer from the big Amer­i­can brew­eries rather than bou­tique brews from local micro­brew­eries. Wine is for sissies and lib­er­als. Organ­ic food is any­thing that grows. Polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect­ness” is rur­al pro­fan­i­ty. They have their own RFDTV cable chan­nel and rely on the FOX News net­work for a com­mon ver­sion of polit­i­cal real­i­ty. The Amer­i­can Farm Bureau Fed­er­a­tion is the ulti­mate author­i­ty on every­thing agricultural.

The lin­ger­ing eco­nom­ic reces­sion of near­ly a decade, how­ev­er, has tak­en at heavy toll on their hopes of sus­tain­ing a thriv­ing par­al­lel rur­al cul­ture. The out­sourc­ing of jobs fol­low­ing the Clin­ton-era free trade” agree­ments hit rur­al areas par­tic­u­lar­ly hard. Many remain­ing rur­al man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs were low-skilled, low-pay­ing, non-union jobs that were eas­i­ly export­ed” to Mex­i­co or the Pacif­ic Rim under free trade” agree­ments. In rur­al Amer­i­ca, NAF­TA is a four-let­ter word.” More recent envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly those tar­get­ing species extinc­tion and glob­al cli­mate change, have dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed rur­al economies that rely on extrac­tive indus­tries such as coal, irri­gat­ed agri­cul­ture, forestry and pri­vate use of pub­lic lands.

Indus­tri­al farm­ers have pros­pered in recent years, but farm­ing is no longer a major source of rur­al employ­ment, even in so-called farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Farm­ing accounts for only about 6 per­cent of non-met­ro­pol­i­tan employ­ment in 2014. Agri­cul­tur­al prof­its now accrue most­ly to investors in cor­po­rate agribusi­ness­es. The few jobs asso­ci­at­ed with extrac­tive nat­ur­al resource indus­tries, such as frack­ing and coal min­ing, have gone main­ly to out­siders who add lit­tle to the local economies of communities.

Rur­al or non-met­ro­pol­i­tan employ­ment over­all has recov­ered far slow­er than met­ro­pol­i­tan employ­ment since the reces­sion of 2008, leav­ing rur­al employ­ment well below lev­els of 10 years ago. The fierce inde­pen­dence and defi­ance of rur­al peo­ple is being severe­ly test­ed by the cur­rent eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal environment.

(Info­graph­ic: USDA Eco­nom­ic Research Ser­vice using data from Bureau of Eco­nom­ic Analy­sis)

Wen­dell Berry sum­ma­rized the cur­rent plight of rur­al Amer­i­ca in a recent let­ter to the edi­tor of the New York Review of Books: The busi­ness of Amer­i­ca has been large­ly and with­out apol­o­gy the plun­der­ing of rur­al Amer­i­ca, from which every­thing of val­ue — min­er­als, tim­ber, farm ani­mals, farm crops, and labor” — has been tak­en at the low­est pos­si­ble price. As appar­ent­ly none of the enlight­ened ones has seen in fly­ing over or bypass­ing on the inter­state high­ways, its too-large fields are tox­ic and erod­ing, its streams and rivers poi­soned, its forests man­gled, its towns dying or dead along with their local­ly owned small busi­ness­es, its chil­dren leav­ing after high school and not com­ing back. Too many of the chil­dren are not work­ing at any­thing, too many are trans­fixed by the var­i­ous screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.”

There are good rea­sons for the grow­ing sense of impo­tence and dread and even anger, in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. In des­per­a­tion, some indige­nous rur­al Amer­i­cans are fight­ing back by all pos­si­ble means — in what might be their last stand.”

The above excerpt was tak­en from a keynote address John Ikerd deliv­ered at the 2017 Rur­al Soci­o­log­i­cal Soci­ety Annu­al Meet­ing, held July 27 – 30, in Colum­bus, Ohio. The focus of the RSS’s 80th annu­al meet­ing was Rur­al Peo­ples in a Voli­tile World: Dis­rup­tive Agents and Adap­tive Strate­gies. To read this pre­sen­ta­tion in its entire­ty, click here. To sub­scribe to John’s blog vis­it johnikerd​.com. (Image: rural​so​ci​ol​o​gy​.org)

This work is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion from the author.

John Ikerd was raised on a small dairy farm in south­west Mis­souri. He received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agri­cul­tur­al eco­nom­ics from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri. After work­ing in pri­vate indus­try, he spent 30 years in var­i­ous pro­fes­so­r­i­al posi­tions at North Car­oli­na State Uni­ver­si­ty, Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty, Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri before retir­ing in ear­ly 2000. He now spends most of his time writ­ing and speak­ing on issues relat­ed to sus­tain­abil­i­ty with an empha­sis on eco­nom­ics and agri­cul­ture. He cur­rent­ly resides in Fair­field, Iowa and is the author of sev­er­al books includ­ing Essen­tials of Eco­nom­ic Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, Sus­tain­able Cap­i­tal­ism, A Return to Com­mon Sense and Cri­sis and Oppor­tu­ni­ty: Sus­tain­abil­i­ty in Amer­i­can Agri­cul­ture and A Rev­o­lu­tion of the Mid­dle.
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