by Ethan A. Huff
July 27, 2011
Throughout the history of agriculture across the globe, farming has
always been a diversified sector of the economy.
Small, self-sustaining, family farms
were the order of the day in most cultures. Even as small farms grew
larger and more specialized over time, many of them still saved
seeds or purchased them from other farmers, which kept control of
farming in the hands of the people.
But today everything has changed, as large chemical and agribusiness
firms have acquired or merged with seed companies and other
agricultural input companies. They have successfully gained a
genetically-modified (GM) crops
with transgenic traits.
These primary factors and several others have facilitated a
crescendo towards the global domination of agriculture by
corporations, and thus the world's food supply.
The dismal state in which we find ourselves today did not come
overnight, of course, but it did pick up rapid speed after the
introduction of GM crops in the mid-1990s.
Since that time, multinational
...have seized a significant amount of
control over the global seed industry, which has greatly limited
agricultural diversity and freedom.
The ability to patent both seeds and seed traits has also added
injury to insult, as the ability to obtain natural or heirloom seeds
is becoming increasingly difficult, and many farmers feel they have
no choice but to go with the flow.
Professor Philip H. Howard from the Department of
Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies at
Michigan State University published a study in 2009 entitled
Visualizing Consolidation in the Global Seed
Industry: 1996 - 2008 that analyzes the trend in
agriculture towards corporate dominance.
The report, which was featured in a special issue of the journal
Renewable Agriculture, provides both an extensive data analysis of
agriculture's dramatic transformation over the past several decades,
as well as a highly-informative visual analysis of this truly
shocking hostile takeover situation.
The 'Big Six"
pharmaceutical and chemical companies
...have acquired, created joint ventures with
hundreds of seed companies over the past 15 years
In order to help assist his readers in
understanding the state of the seed industry, Prof. Howard developed
a very informative graphic that displays the reality of who really
controls the seed industry.
Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, and BASF collectively own or
partially-own hundreds of formerly-independent seed companies - and
Monsanto, of course, dominates them all:
As you can see above, the blue circles
in the diagram represent seed companies, while the red circles -
which happen to all be chemical or pharmaceutical companies -
control the vast majority of them.
Solid gray arrows indicate complete
ownership of a company, while gray lines indicate partial ownership.
One of the most obvious first impressions to be gathered from the
diagram is Monsanto's excessive and widespread control over the seed
industry. According to Prof. Howard's analysis, Monsanto acquired
more than 50 seed companies just during the time represented by his
study period, which spans the years between 1996 and 2008.
Monsanto had little-to-no involvement in the seed industry prior to
the mid-1980s, but since that time has been rapidly eating up seed
companies and furthering its development and control over the food
supply through GMOs. Today, Monsanto is the world's largest seed
company, and the transnational behemoth continues to acquire or
otherwise create "partnerships" with various independent seed
companies that are still in existence.
Behind Monsanto, the other five of the "Big Six" that Prof. Howard
...collectively own or control a great
portion of the remaining major seed companies not owned or
controlled by Monsanto.
And one of the biggest factors that has
contributed to this dismal setup is GMOs and transgenic, patentable
seed traits that are shared among the industry players.
The "Big Six"
each have agreements
...with one or more of the others; their overall
success has largely hinged on GMOs and increased control of
The only thing worse than Monsanto and the dominance of the seed
market are the cozy relationships with one another.
Prof. Howard's analysis reveals that
every company in the "Big Six" has at least one mutual relationship
with one another, and they together share corporate control of the
Monsanto has established
cross-licensing agreements for its transgenic patents with
every single other company in the mix
Dow has agreements with all
except for Bayer
Syngenta has agreements with
Dow, Monsanto, and DuPont
BASF has agreements with Dow and
What does this all mean?
It means that the already-disturbing
oligarchy that controls the seed industry is shaping up to become a
total monopoly with Monsanto at the helm, of course. And as
transgenic technology continues to develop, which forces farmers to
either go with the flow or leave the business, there may soon be no
other choices in farming besides whatever Monsanto has to offer.
One would think that farmers would be more aware of this takeover
and resist it. But the "Big Six" effectively fly under the radar, in
most cases, by selling their seeds and chemicals through various
vendors and under different names.
According to Prof. Howard, this is how
they effectively maintain an illusion of competition and choice in
the midst of their takeover.
How things got
this bad and how the situation can be fixed
Real competition in the seed industry has been systematically
deconstructed over the years for numerous reasons.
Besides blatant industry consolidation
and takeover by drug and chemical companies, many farmers have
simply been willing to accept the latest seed technologies, even
when it has meant having to give up their seed saving freedom, and
being forced to rely on the intensive use of chemicals and other
synthetic interventions in order to farm.
Prof. Howard explains that a concept known as the "agricultural
treadmill" has been a major contributing factor in the demise of the
seed industry. Because demand for food is largely inelastic, any
increase in production will cause crop prices to fall.
So as new farming technologies emerge, farmers that adopt them first
inadvertently force all the other farmers to adopt them as well,
just to maintain the same level of revenue. If they do not adopt
them, or fail to keep up with other farmers on the treadmill, they
will eventually fall off, or be forced out of the farming business
Other factors include changes in policy that have decreased the
barriers to accumulation that have prevented agricultural takeover
in the past. By developing patented, transgenic traits, seed
companies have been able to overcome a barrier to accumulation in
When farmers cannot save their GM seeds, the corporate owners can
effectively maintain a continual, yearly cash flow just from selling
seeds and their corresponding pesticides and herbicides, which in
turn makes agriculture a vastly more profitable enterprise for
preying corporations like Monsanto than it used to be.
So what is the solution?
Prof. Howard suggests improving
antitrust enforcement, which will prevent the continual shift of
seed company ownership and gradual accumulation of the food chain by
a few large companies. Another idea is to create policies that fight
against the agricultural treadmill phenomenon, and that instead
promote independent, self-sustaining agricultural systems that
maintain control of food with the people rather than the
Perhaps the most effective suggestion - and one that we strongly
advocate for as well - is to end the practice of granting
patents on living organisms.
By re-establishing this most-effective obstacle to accumulation,
there will be no more incentive for multinational biotechnology
companies like Monsanto to focus on dominating agriculture because
there will be no more opportunity for the massive accumulation of
wealth and capital through patented seeds.