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Remember rollerball?

By Dave Carter

Remember Rollerball? Probably not.

Released sometime in the mid 1970’s, Rollerball was a grade “B” movie portraying a futuristic society in which nations had ceased to exist. Instead, something like 10 corporations ruled the world. Everyone around the globe owed their allegiance to one of those corporations. They flew the appropriate corporate flag outside their home, wore the appropriate corporate clothing and socialized only with other people from their own corporations.

Competition no longer existed in the traditional sense, according to the movie. Instead, the companies settled their differences in a competitive game called Rollerball, in which corporate-owned teams fought for dominance. If I remember right, Rollerball was a souped-up version of roller derby, with lots of blood and violence thrown in.

I don’t remember much more of the move, but I remember leaving the theater thinking, “Boy, was that really stupid. Nothing like that could really happen.”

I started thinking about Rollerball last month as I watched the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the FedEx Orange Bowl, and the OurHouse.com Whatever Bowl. Visions of Rollerball popped up again a couple of weeks ago as Ted Turner, Steven Case and other executives sealed the deal for the Times-Warner-CNN-AOL-EIEIO-Etc. Corporation. Is it just me, or is Rollerball closer than we think?

Those of us in agriculture have been concerned for years about the growing clout of a shrinking number of large companies that provide our inputs and market our crops. Instead of participating in a competitive marketplace, today’s companies strive to create a “seamless food system” that controls production from seed to shelf. If a producer doesn’t like the input provided by Brand X today, that’s too bad. Brand X probably swallowed up Brands V, W, Y and Z somewhere along the line.

Brand X may also have entered into a joint venture agreement with Acme Processing and Retailing Company. Any producers wanting to do business with Acme will be required to use Brand X inputs. And the producer probably isn’t getting paid any premium for the extra effort.

Consider the situation this past fall when the marketplace soured on genetically modified crops. The same companies that were telling producers to grow GMO crops over the past three years suddenly announced that growers would be discounted on any GMO commodities, and would even receive a premium on conventional crops. But the responsibility for paying to segregate commodities came to rest squarely on the farmers.

The result of two decades of merger mania is felt far beyond rural America. My children attend a school district that receives a substantial annual “contribution” from one of the large soft drink companies. In exchange, however, the school district pledges never to let the logo from the competing soft drink company darken the classrooms or lunchrooms of the school buildings. Even the high school after-prom event, which is held far from any school grounds, is prohibited from serving anything but the sponsoring soft drink.

A growing number of producers and consumers are starting to clamor for stronger enforcement of the laws intended to control the anti-competitive impacts of mergers and acquisitions. Last fall, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-MN, fell short in his effort to push through Congress an 18-month moratorium on corporate mergers and acquisitions. Undeterred, Sen. Wellstone is fighting for re-introduction of that concept.

On March 21, agricultural producers, workers and consumers are scheduled to join together on the steps of the Capitol in Washington D.C. in a giant rally for rural America. Participants in that rally will be calling for action to restore the competitive forces in the American marketplace.

Perhaps nothing will happen. But the effort is important.

At least it’s something to think about this summer, as you head to Coors Field to watch our Monfort-owned Rockies compete against the Anheiser Busch Cardinals.

Rollerball, anyone?