Invisible Giant: Cargill and its Transnational Strategies

Invisible Giant: Cargill and its Transnational Strategies

by Brewster Kneen.
Pluto Press/UBC Press, Second Edition 2002, 222 pages

Also published in Spanish, Japanese, and Korean.

Invisible Giant is now out of print, but remains the authoritative study of Cargill. It is available in many libraries, and may be available at, but if you cannot find it you can download the text here.

This download is completely free. You can, however, make a donation to The Ram's Horn to support our work.

Brewster Kneen writes: “When Pluto Press asked me to produce a second edition of Invisible Giant, I was shocked and  amazed at the changes I found since the first edition appeared in 1995. Not only had the number of global corporate players shrunk alarmingly, but they have virtually eliminated competition between themselves through complementary strategies and business activities while at the same time forming joint ventures and partnerships amongst themselves, again to reduce the inefficiencies of competition.  

Cargill has played this game with great skill and dedication. Its reward last year was sales of US$51 billion derived from having some component of just about everything we eat pass through its hands at some point in its journey from farm to supermarket.

My purpose in writing this book is not, however, to overwhelm the reader-eater with indigestion and despair. I remain convinced that as corporations such as Cargill get bigger and bigger, and appear to exercise ever greater control over the global food system, their sheer size limits their agility and activity.  By understanding the rules they play by and the businesses they are involved in, we can gain an understanding of how we should proceed if we want a different game and a different kind of business, one in which the goal is to ensure that everyone is adequately nourished while living respectfully and harmoniously with all Creation.”

1.   Mutant Giants
2.   Cargill Inc – The Numbers                                  
3.   Origins, Organization and Ownership                        
4.   Policy Advocacy and Capitalist Subsidies           
5.   Creatures: Feeding and Processing                  
6.   Cotton, Peanuts & Malting  
7.   Processing: Oilseeds, Soybeans, Corn & Wheat       
8.   Invisible Commodities                              
9.   E-commerce                                                 
10. Coming and Going: Transport and Storage             
11.  A Typical Story– Canada, and Mexico                
12.  Fertilizer                                         
13. The West Coast                                              
14.  Rivers of Soy - South America                              
15.  Juice                                                      
16.  The ‘Far East’                                             
17.  Seeds                                                      
18.  Salt                                                       
19.  Only Cargill’s Future?                                      

Some reviews of Invisible Giant

"Kneen has crawled into the belly of the beast, as it were, and (in very readable prose) has described what he saw there.... 

Invisible Giant details the ethos, priorities, strategies and goals of transnational corporations as seen in a single paradigmatic example. It is not a "parade of horribles" decrying the unjust and outrageous conduct of this soulless monster. It doesn't need to be. Simply telling the story of the company, describing its operations, listing where it does its business, what it buys and sells, what public monies it relies on and how it seeks to influence policy here and abroad, allows a picture to emerge which needs no rhetorical embellishment to rile the reader. ... In the course of merely reporting one company's activities, Kneen catalogs not just what corporations are doing that is so injurious to democracy, but also how they are doing it. His work is the more amazing given Cargill's general secrecy.

People who are concerned about the influence of corporations on civic institutions, on economic security, on the well-being of the environment, and who are interested in working to change that influence could hardly find a better primer on corporate thinking and conduct than this book."              (Fred Renfroe: The Boycott Quarterly, Summer 1997)


Review by Richard A. Levins
Invisible Giant: Cargill and Its Transnational Strategies, Second Edition

In the December 9, 2002, issue of Forbes, Cargill was once again listed as the largest privately-held corporation in the United States. With sales of over $50 billion and close to 100,000 employees, Cargill is also among the top 20 of all U. S. corporations, both privately held and publicly traded: Procter & Gamble, AOL Time Warner, and Merrill Lynch would each come after Cargill on such a list. Cargill is also twice as big as Archer Daniels Midland, the company Forbes named its closest rival.

The magazine's feature story on Cargill begins by describing the company as "the most dominating-and obsessively private-company on the planet." Soon after, Forbes caught me off guard when it asked this question: "Is Cargill too big for the good of the country?" The article leaves room for farmers to answer "yes" to that question. Cargill's new look of being the farmer's partner and a source of solutions is offset by a large sidebar on how turkey farmers in Texas are suing Cargill for contract problems and violations of antitrust law. [American] NFU's Thomas Buis is quoted as saying that agribusiness concentration will turn farmers into "low-wage contractees of big corporations." Forbes itself muses that, for some farmers, "Cargill itself may become their biggest problem."

These are tougli words from a respected business publication. Should farmers turn to Cargill for solutions, or beware of its growing influence in all phases of our food system? The Forbes article makes reference to Brewster Kneen and the new edition of his book Invisible Giant. To put it mildly, Kneen advises considerable caution when dealing with Cargill.

Early on, Kneen challenges Cargill's claim that its global strategies are intended to help both farmers and consumers get a better price. Then he says: "The question farmers have to ask is, why should Cargill want the primary producer to get a better price?" By the end of his book, Kneen argues that "It is hard to imagine a place for Cargill, or any other food transnational" in a world of healthy, diverse communities of any sort, farmers or otherwise.

This book does more than describe Cargill and its history. Kneen carefully lays out his case for the company acting in coordinated and sustained ways to "create agricultural policy from the bottom up." Cargill's actions are presented as part of a grand plan to reshape the food and farming system into a vast industrial process that benefits the company far more than it does producers, consumers, or the economies of any single nation. He paints a picture of a few large grain companies, Cargill biggest of all, that give lip service to market forces but, in truth, "do not wish to compete, either intentionally or by accident." He warns farmers: "Pity those who believe the propaganda of competition."

Much of the material is from seemingly exhaustive studies of Cargill's own offerings, newspapers, business periodicals, books, and enough other material to account for over 200 footnotes. Kneen also describes his visits to many parts of the globe and his encounters with Cargill (often powerful, seldom highly profiled) at every turn in his journeys. There are detailed chapters on everything from cotton to salt, from soybeans to fertilizer, and from meat animals to orange juice. Along the way, he takes his readers on an eye-opening journey to South America, home of the corporation's second largest division, Cargill Brazil. While there, he asks farmers how they can hope to benefit when the same company is so heavily involved in buying the products of farmers on both sides of the equator.

Toward the end of his book, Kneen gives a broad sketch of Cargill becoming involved with everything from farmer cooperatives to my own employer, the University of Minnesota. Should farmers jump on the partnership bandwagon, or take Kneen's advice to be mistrustful of such arrangements? It is one of the most important questions many farmers, their cooperatives, and their commodity organizations must face.