At the time of Expo Milan 2015 – when we published the ebook ‘GMO, the Big Scam’ – the global seeds and pesticide market was in the hands of 6 Corporations. Nothing could be worse, it was said. Instead, reality has taken over even our worst nightmares.
Seeds, a concentration of 20 years on a global scale
In 1998, a couple of years after the introduction of GMOs on an agro-industrial scale, large groups began to shop for competitive companies, with the aim of seizing the largest possible number of intellectual property rights (IP) on seeds. Following a path similar to that already carried out by information technology giants, which in turn over the previous decades had bought up IPs on programming codes. (1)
In 2008, the only genes patented by Monsanto accounted for 92% of soybeans, 80% of corn and 86% of cotton grown in the USA. At that time, the M&As of the previous decade had allowed six giants to dominate the international seed and pesticide market. What’s more, the s.c. Big 6 (Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Dow Chemical Company, Bayer, BASF) began to forge new alliances, to the detriment of the competition.
By 2018, the Big 6 were consolidated into the Big 4. Bayer (which acquired Monsanto) and Corteva (born from the Dow-DuPont merger), ChemChina (which bought Syngenta) and BASF. These four corporations control over 60% of seed sales worldwide. (2) Transaction values show the size of the business at stake:
– the Dow-DuPont merger, worth US $ 130 billion, led the two chemical groups to form a third company, Corteva,
– Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto, US $ 63 bn, has made the former’s brand name disappear, after 117 years, although not its legal problems linked to glyphosate,
– the purchase of Syngenta for US $ 43 bn, has enabled ChemChina to climb a position in the Top 10 global seed sales (where the Chinese group Longping High-Tech is already a fixture).
In the last decade there have been another 56 acquisitions and international joint ventures involving other giants such as Vilmorin-Mikado of Limagrain (France), DLF (Denmark) and Longping High-Tech, which acquired the Dow corn division in Brazil and controlling holdings on seven Chinese seed industries. ChemChina in turn has planned new acquisitions on its domestic market.
Concentrations of power on food production, the global scenario
Philip Howard, a researcher at Michigan State University (USA), has been monitoring the concentrations of power in the seed sector at a global level for a quarter century. (3) The approximately 400 transfers of ownership on the companies mentioned in the table below, which he recorded over the last 23 years, have not however affected the indifference of the authorities who should have been overseeing antitrust legislation.
Farmers are the first victims of these concentrations, explains Howard. Comparing how such a phenomenon involves a reduction of choices and an increase in prices. (3) And not only:
innovation is limited by the protection of IP rights, which large groups also practice with aggressive methods. Imposing restrictions on the use and exchange of seeds, even for seed saving and research purposes,
private research has decreased or slowed down, as can be seen from the US Department of Agriculture, the giants emerging from consolidation promote less research. So there are fewer players, less innovation.
The competitiveness of any sector, according to classical economic theories, disappears when the four main players control 40% or more of the market. Yet the seed industry continues to exceed this threshold both on an overall level and on individual production lines. Suffice to say that even before the advent of the Big 4, just three groups – Monsanto, Syngenta and Vilmorin – controlled 60% of the global vegetable seed market.
The aggregate concentration of industrial seed conglomerates is clearly looking at the global agri-food economy as a whole. Colliding with public interest, collective interest and individual operators, and having an effect on both economic and sector policies. Where the plutocrats are clearly able to manipulate political decisions to their own advantage and influence administrative decisions easily. (4)
Concentrations, food security and SDGs
The dominance of the Big 4 influences both conventional and organic agriculture. The inaccessibility of a wide range of plant genetics to public researchers, farmers and independent farmers severely limits the possibility of improving agricultural and food systems. On the contrary, it is essential to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations.
Plant resilience must be promoted, thanks to public and private synergy. To achieve public interest to enable crop prosperity without resorting to synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, or genetic engineering, we must allow crops to resist disease naturally, to adapt to climate change and environmental conditions. Addressing the crucial problem of food security – that is, the security of food supplies – and improving the nutritional quality of our food.
The antitrust authorities all over the planet – in the USA and in Europe, and in particular in Italy – seem to have abdicated their responsibility to investigate and prosecute violations in the agri-food sector. As proof of this, we note with regret the disinterest of the Italian Antitrust authority towards our reports on blatant abuses committed by Amazon. (5)
“Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” (Henry Kissinger)
It is up to the public sector in modern democracies, to take action in order to guarantee the concrete existence of a market and an economy favorable to individual economic initiative and free competition. By obstructing restrictive trade agreements and the abuses of a dominant position. All the more in vital sectors like agri-food, where abuses can put the sustainability and security of our food supply at risk.
Food security and SDGs, what should be done
The human right to food must be put at the top of the political agenda, in Europe and in all countries belonging to the UN. ‘Zero Hunger‘ is the second of the 17 SDGs and cannot be addressed without solving the problem of the aggregate concentration of seed companies.
Cataleptic authorities must be awakened into supporting investments in plant selection programs that meet the needs of regional agricultural systems and which can be shared in the public interest, whilst supporting both the scientific and farming communities that already safeguard the democratic seeds of progress. Being able to recover control of reserves that can actively be conserved and improving and creating more diversity in our fields. (6) The teachings of one of the free software prophets – the creator of the GNU/Linux project comes to mind – which the writer was lucky enough to hear live in Bologna, at the dawn of the new millennium.
‘Sharing is when yougivesomeone else something you have got. One of the main political issues today is to eliminate plutocracy and restore democracy’ (Richard Stallman, the ‘Free Software Foundation’ founder)
(1) This de facto monopoly on programming codes has allowed IT giants to prevent and in any case significantly impede the development of new software beyond their control
(2) Cfr. P. Mooney, report ‘Blocking the chain’ (2018), ETC Group,
(4) In this regard, please see Michal S. Gal and Thomas Cheng, ‘Aggregate Concentration: An Empirical Study of Competition Law Solutions’, Journal of Antitrust Enforcement (2016)
(5) This refers to the Great Italian Food Trade reports cited in previous articles https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/consum-attori/amazon-troppi-illeciti-nella-vendita-di-alimenti-gift-si-appella-all-antitrust, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/consum-attori/amazon-pantry-cosa-non-va, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/consum-attori/amazon-fuorilegge, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/consum-attori/amazon-cyber-bullismo. Reports that gave rise to two proceedings, both filed without even proceeding with a preliminary investigation as they were deemed ‘not to be in line with the intervention priorities’ of the Antitrust Authority of Rome
(6) V. Farmer to Farmer Campaign, report ‘Out of Hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry’ (2009), http://www.farmertofarmercampaign.com/