The Soils of War

The top grossing film in the United States this weekend was Argo, an above average caper about how the CIA smuggled six embassy staff out of the country during the Iran hostage crisis.

Argo’s Agricultural Attaché (right)

No, there weren’t any terribly sympathetic Iranian characters other than a demure domestic worker – every other Iranian is a swivel-eyed fanatic. But, to be fair, the film tosses Hollywood’s How To Demonize the Middle East rulebook at the beginning of the movie, with a good potted history. First, the Iranians democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh. He nationalized the country’s oil, much to the chagrin of BP, and was subsequently deposed in a CIA/MI5 coup. The US installed the Shah’s tyranny which, in turn, incubated the Ayatollah. Don’t see that too often in Hollywood. The fate of the domestic worker is concisely, and wryly, observed too.

The embassy workers who made it out are a quirky bunch of misfits. All of them are in the visa-issuing business, it seems, except one. The quirkiest of them all is Henry Schatz, the 31 year old agricultural attaché, played by Rory Cochrane (channeling Nick Frost) as the kind of man who probably has a small gun in the back of his underpants. Agricultural attachés, bless them – the hick cousins of the more urbane passport-stamping crowd. What could be more comic?

Except that, in general, it is the job of this person to undermine a country’s food sovereignty, either by promoting the export of the host country’s food or to encourage the purchase of agricultural hardware and food from the attaché’s home country. This is known as ‘agricultural and trade cooperation’.

If this sounds more than a little cynical, do have a look at GRAIN’s latest 2009 report, The Soils of War, in which you can read how consular agricultural aid has been a means for US agribusiness to get its hands on desirable chunks of Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, the US isn’t the only country to have such bagmen in its embassies. From Australia to China, similar positions exist. And the two things such positions have in common is that they have yet to be consigned to history, and they’re not that funny.