Me and an African farmer

In the world of geopolitics, foreign aid creates dependance. The story goes something like this: Poor African country suffers food shortage. United States comes to the rescue and sends food, typically subsidized corn grown by American farmers. The “free” food feeds some hungry people, a good thing, but the local farmers can’t compete, go out of business and join the thousands clamoring for food.

To “solve” the problem, farmers are “trained” in growing new, more efficient crops by a US funded aid organization. The crops are “given” by a corporation, like Monsanto. The farmer is “advised” not to grow the local food staple that has been feeding his family and community for generations, but a cash crop like cotton that he, nor his family or community, can eat. However, he can sell his crop on the global cotton market to earn money to buy food, now being shipped in by corporations.

With the help of the aid organization, the first crop goes swimmingly because it uses “new high yield” seeds. For the next season, the young MBA who is “LOVING” their first time in Africa, reads the USAID manual and tells the farmer he needs to be self-reliant. So the MBA helps the farmer take out a “micro-loan” to buy the corporation’s patented seed, fertilizer and to access irrigation water to make the seed grow. The farmer is anxious because he has never had to buy seed before. He usually just saves some from the previous year’s harvest to plant the next year. But the MBA sternly warns him that the seed is patented by Monsanto and he will be fined if he tries to save it. The farmer wonders how something provided by Mother Earth can be owned by a company, but heads the warning. Besides, if the seed works as well as the company says, buying it won’t be a problem.

The farmer receives his loan at a nerve wracking 24% but he and the aid worker review the numbers and if the projections are right, he can pay it back with a good harvests and start earning money to save for his child’s education.

Well, the next years yield and price is okay, not as quite as high as the first, but good enough. The problem is Russia is in drought and world wheat prices rose 75% over the year so when he goes to the local store, he cannot buy nearly enough food for his family. He tries to find the aid worker but she has returned to the United States to work at Goldman Sachs. He goes to the local lender and takes out a larger loan this year to buy his seed and fertilizer, with extra to cover his food costs. The interest rate on the new loan is nearly double. He prays for a bumper harvest and rain in Russia so he can pay off his debts.

The next year there is a minor drought and a the government rations irrigation water so there is enough water for the few farmers still growing food crops. He watches his cotton crop wither in the field and wonders how he will feed his family. He thinks of his brother in law who committed suicide last week by drinking chemical fertilizer. He won’t go out like that, so he and his family join the thousands in the food line to receive free corn grown by U.S. farmers that USAID is handing out down by the train station. He feels guilty because he knows he and all the farmers could grow food for their families if they had just continued to grow good. But over the years, too many of them started growing non-food crops for export. The deal sounded so good… As he reaches the front of the line, he notices the aid workers clean white cotton t-shirts.

I think about this scenario and think about my own life. How self-reliant am I? Hell, if shit hit the fan and I needed to provide for myself and my family, we would be fighting our way to the front of the food line. I rely on corporations for almost everything – to grow, produce and cook my food; bottle my water; service my car; heat and cool my house; loan me money to buy my house; and the list goes on.

As Americans, we pride ourselves on being independent yet if we honestly look at it, we are one of the most dependent societies on the planet. While we are not dependent on other countries (except China to buy our debt, or developing countries to make our cheap goods), we are nearly totally dependent on corporations. We don’t ask neighbors to help us raise a barn much less for a cup of sugar. It is popular to yell and scream that the government needs to get out of our lives, but why on earth is it okay to be wholly dependent on corporations for our way of life? As we line up to order our super value meal at McDonalds, how are we any different than the poor African farmer in the aid line? We only pay $5.50 for a Big Mac value meal because its is ridiculously low quality and the corporations producing the food are heavily subsidized. The food is free for the African farmer because we are paying the corporations to overproduce. Subtract out the McDonalds’ marketing costs, and the difference is nearly negligible.

During Hurricane Irene, the power lines owned by the energy company were knocked down near my house. I clearly couldn’t repair that myself (except if I used solar, wind or geothermal to self-generate), so we were left in the dark. As dinner approached, we could not heat up any of the pre-made, packaged food in our house. We were surrounded by calories we couldn’t consume. We got in the car and drove around until we found a restaurant with power that had sourced all the food and could cook our meal for us.

I am not implying that we all have to be 100% self-reliant, but we do have to step back and look at how dependent we have become on corporations to provide us all the products and services we need to lead our lifestyles. There are alternatives and working with our neighbors and community is a place to start. Not everyone has to do it all themselves, but like every good financial portfolio, we risk disaster if we don’t diversify and overly rely on one sector for our well being.


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