By John Vidal
When a farmer in India plants his cotton crops, there is at least a 75% chance that the seeds had to be purchased from a company owned by Monsanto. If a Latin American farmer sprays insecticide on his transgenic soybeans, it is more than likely that the chemicals were sold to him by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer or the American Dupont. And when an African farmer puts chemicals in his cornfield, it is very likely that these products come from the Swiss company Syngenta.
Until recently, six or seven agri-food companies competed for the market for seeds and chemicals. But if the regulators of the United States and the EU allow a series of mergers to take place, in a few months only three companies will control almost 60% of the world's seeds, almost 70% of the pesticides and chemicals needed to grow food and almost all the patents of transgenic foods in the world.
Mega-mergers currently being analyzed by governments and the European Union include the € 59 billion purchase of Monsanto, the US chemical, seed and biotechnology company, by Germany's Bayer; the intention of the US chemical company Dow to merge with its rival, the DuPont conglomerate; and ChemChina's plan to buy the Swiss seed and genetics group Syngenta for 38 billion euros.
Considering the mergers of some of the world's largest fertilizer companies, and the intentions of the world's largest agricultural equipment companies to invest in big data, robotics, and agricultural technology, all of these business moves will lead to agriculture. global to a new era.
Antitrust, environmental and consumer groups in the United States, Europe and Latin America have been alarmed this week, warning that the three mega-mergers could potentially concentrate financial and political power in a very dangerous way and would force more countries to adopt a only agricultural model that excludes and impoverishes small farmers.
With seeds, chemicals, research, and the power of lobbying in the hands of a small group of super-powerful companies, they say, small producers would disappear, competition would be reduced, and prices for food and farm inputs would rise.
Genetic information crucial for growth
A report on the growing concentration of power in the agri-food industry will be published shortly in which the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (Ipes) affirms that "a wave of corporate consolidation is underway without precedents ".
"The concentration of new technologies and information could lead to three companies controlling 60% of seeds and 70% of agrochemicals globally, in a wide-ranging oligopoly. It would mean a historic and global change in terms of access to agricultural inputs and would make the entire system of crops and livestock vulnerable due to its uniformity, "says a draft of the report to which the Guardian has had access.
The consolidation that the report talks about refers to each of the big three corporations having access to large banks of genetic information that are crucial for growth in places like sub-Saharan Africa, which suffer from food shortages and have a growing population.
"The mergers will allow pharmaceutical and agricultural companies to become big data companies," explains Catherine Wood, CEO of Ark Investment Management. "When you sequence a human genome or a seed, what you get is information."
Olivier De Schutter, a former UN special rapporteur on the right to food and co-chair of Ipes, notes that the mergers will make developing countries even more targets for corporate farming.
"The frontier of industrial agriculture is moving into sub-Saharan Africa. There is a huge market there and seed companies say it will grow even more in the coming years."
"They will be in a dominant position in the market. Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming the battleground for large corporations," says De Schutter.
Colin Hamilton is head of consumer goods research at Maquarie Bank in London. "These mergers show how corporations seek technological advancement and improved harvests," says Hamilton. "China produces half as much corn as the United States, so it wants to catch up. It wants technology from Syngenta."
Young people no longer want field
Part of the change in corporate consolidation and the American agricultural system based on genetic engineering is in turn generated by demographic and technological changes. "Most of the farmers in countries like China are over 50 years old. Young people no longer want to work in the fields."
The technology and agricultural watchdog group ETC argues that the furor is no longer limited to purchasing seeds and pesticides, but to controlling agricultural inputs and food security globally.
"Antitrust regulators should ban these mergers around the world, and especially in emerging markets in the southern hemisphere, as these new mega-corporations are going to expand their power and eliminate local small businesses from competition," he says. Pat Mooney, director of ETC, a group that oversees global agricultural business and technologies.
Mooney says the mergers respond to corporations' desire to control big data and access to patents, GMOs, and intellectual property.
"These agreements are not just about controlling seeds and pesticides, but also about who will control big data in agriculture. Companies that can control information on seeds, soil and climate and calculate new genomic information will have inevitably control over agricultural inputs: seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and machinery ".
"Control will be held by large corporations that better manage information and DNA for their own benefit," he explains.
The mergers have sounded alarms in Latin America, and they are worrying because they will lead to price increases, more privatization of research and political pressure, says Silvia Ribeiro, director of ETC's Latin American affairs office in Mexico.
"These large corporations are pushing for our countries to have laws and regulations that allow them to dominate the market, crush the rights of small farmers and make peasant seeds illegal," he says.
Higher prices, more impoverishment
"All together, these mergers are going to change the agricultural world, probably raising prices for producers and consumers around the world," warns Adrian Bebb, head of food, agriculture and biodiversity at Friends of the Earth Europe, who described the merger of Monsanto and Bayer as a "hellish marriage".
By concentrating market control and access to seeds and land among a few corporations, Bebb says millions of small farmers in developing countries will be impoverished: "From Africa and Asia to Latin America and Europe, corporate control of markets and supply chains is displacing millions of small agricultural producers. " He believes that "this dynamic has generated one of the highest rates of poverty and hunger among small food producers and rural communities around the world."
Bebb and others argue that the mergers do not seek to solve world hunger. "Research has shown that hunger in the world is not a problem of supply, but of poverty, the absence of democracy and unequal access to land, water and other resources, especially for women.
To prevent a few companies from completely controlling the world's food supply, a lot of money should be invested in grassroots agriculture, he says.
"Small farmers are the backbone of the world's food supply. They represent 90% of the world's farmers and provide more than 80% of the food consumed by developing countries, especially in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. "explains Bebb.
The fight to stop mergers is not only in the hands of regulators. Powerful agricultural movements in many developing countries, terrified by the immense power corporations would have, plan to take their concerns to the UN and to international conferences that will take place in the coming months in Indonesia, Mexico and elsewhere around the world.
One of the most important calls will be next month in Rome, where the committee on world food security of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization will meet.
"Virtually all the governments of the world, the organizations and many of the agricultural companies will be meeting in the same place for a week, discussing food security issues. There will be many angry people trying to stop these mergers," says Ribeiro.
Posted by The Guardian
Translation of Lucía Balducci