They're saving the world from hunger again. This time, the bold crusaders have been mustered in Sacramento, Calif., to proclaim the glories of chemical-industrial agriculture, biotech, genetically modified crops and livestock, and kindred expressions of the modern age. The forum has been a federally sponsored Ministerial Conference and Expo of Agricultural Science and Technology. Under the approving eyes of bigwigs from firms like Monsanto, U.S. officials like Agriculture Secretary Helen Veneman pounded the drum for high-tech agriculture.

            Said Veneman last Monday, "This conference is for those most in need. It (hunger) has to become a global agenda ... new approaches are needed."

            Was there ever a moment, in the long tradition of such overblown rhetoric, that "new approaches" weren't needed? Scour through all the old speeches across the past century about starving billions around the planet or starving millions right here in the USA, and it's always the same professions of noble purpose. "We can end hunger now," declared the sales folk for the Green Revolution that peaked in expectation in 1971 when Dr. Norman Borlaug got the Nobel Peace Prize for his invention of Mexican miracle wheat, heavily backed by the Rockefeller Foundation.

            And indeed, miracle wheat paid off handsomely for rich farmers on expensively irrigated land in Sonora but, as always, intensive monoculture drove marginal subsistence farmers off the land, and the Mexican poor people hated Dr. Borlaug's low gluten wheat, the same way the peasants and poor urban dwellers of South and Southeast Asia hated the first "miracle" rice, IR-8, because it cooked up mushy and tasted bad.

            "History may well record that the Green Revolution was a greater disaster than our Vietnam intervention." So wrote John and Karen Hess in their funny, fiery book "The Taste of America," published back in 1977.

            They were probably right, if you add up all the Greater Than Expected Deaths (as the statisticians put it) in Third World countries savaged by techno-fixers from the First World trying to make world agricultural production safe for capitalism.

            The techno-fixers moved in step with the counter-insurgency forces, who also acted to save world agricultural production, but more drastically. In the 1950s, when the peoples of Guatemala and Iran elected governments committed to land reform, the CIA paid for coups to kill the reformers and protect the old land barons. This sanction, exercised by CIA, advisors, technicians from USAID, death squads and allied agents, extended across Latin America for the next 30 years, crowned by the butchering, under CIA supervision, of 200,000 Mayan Indians in Guatemala in the 1980s.

            On the other side of the world, when the land barons of Afghanistan were threatened by a revolution there in the late 1970s, supported by the Soviets, the CIA pumped in aid and fanatical Islamic advisers. The opium-growing land barons returned, and flourished, rich on opium harvests that are now the highest in the country's history, amid desperate hunger of most Afghans.

            It wouldn't be hard to feed all the people on the planet. The Malthusian thesis about population growth outstripping means of subsistence has long since been disproved. The imperatives of capital are always searingly obvious in agriculture, as is made manifest if you fly south down California's Central Valley from Sacramento, ground zero for an agricultural system based on oil (oil-based pesticides; fertilizer, courtesy of natural gas); on absentee ownership, mostly by banks; and on water allocated by water boards controlled by the land barons via politicians in their pay.

            The latest techno-revolution merely underlines the obvious. "Advances" in agricultural technology are mostly ways to tie the farmer into a cycle of debt peonage; to restrict production in favor of the big growers and send the little guy to the wall. (Witness the fate of strains of corn or wheat perfected by peasants over centuries, as with Indians and hard wheat, later appropriated by Canadian farmers.)

            All the major American food programs suffer from the same vice of hypocrisy. Food for Peace in the 1950s, touted as America's gift to the world's starving, was a sophisticated dumping scheme, also a way of supporting the United State's military allies with food. FDR's farm programs in the New Deal favored big agricultural concerns and pushed thousands of subsistence farmers off the land. At least we can thank FDR and his ag secretary Henry Wallace for the Chicago bluesmen who wended their way north after New Deal subsidies to the land barons to take their acres out of production destroyed all prospects for the sharecroppers.

            Thirty years ago here in America, politicians felt it necessary to make stirring speeches in support of the small family farmer. You don't hear much talk like that now, after the latest holocaust of corporate integration. U.S. agriculture is controlled by about five monstrous corporations, like Tysons or Archer Daniels Midland, and it's trending the same way across the planet.

            The way to ensure there aren't hungry people in the world is to give peasants land, unencumbered by debt peonage. The United States has spent the last 150 years ensuring that precisely the opposite conditions prevail, exactly as the corporate carnival in Sacramento attests.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.