World agribusiness R&D controlled by 'cosy cartel'

Monday, 23 September 2013 15:32 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The increasing consolidation of global agribusiness is leaving the world's food productionin the hands of a corporate "cartel", warns a new market report from ETC Group, a civil society organization based in Canada.

According to the report, six multinational corporations — BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta — control 75 per cent of all private-sector plant breeding research, 60 per cent of the commercial seed market and 76 per cent of global pesticide and fertiliser sales.  

And in livestock genetics, it says, four firms control 97 per cent of research on poultry and two thirds of swine and cattle research.

The report was published last week (10 September) and is based on data from company and market reports for 2011, with updates on new acquisitions, legal proceedings and mergers for 2012-13.

“Cartels can exercise power in different ways. It's not just about price-fixing. It's also about technological control.”

Kathy Jo Wetter, ETC

The updates show a "trend of consolidation and expansion", particularly into the markets of the global South, according to Kathy Jo Wetter, ETC Group's research programme manager.

She says that increased consolidation has created a cartel across agribusiness sectors: cross-licensing and joint ventures reveal the cosy relationship between supposed competitors.

"Cartels can exercise power in different ways. It's not just about price-fixing. It's also about technological control," she says.

The report says that technological control over food production, via patent-protected seeds for example, comes at the expense of traditional farming methods often used in developing countries, and usually entails the use of crop monocultures, industrial fertilisers and pesticides.

"The entrance of these multinationals means a complete overhaul of the way agriculture works in the global South and the effects — the [crop] uniformity, the increase in chemical inputs — are particularly dangerous in a time of climate change," says Wetter. 

But Kimberly Ann Elliott, a senior researcher at the US-based Center for Global Development, a non-profit think-tank, says the report fails to quantify any harm caused by agribusinesses' consolidation in developing countries.

"Certainly concentration in any business sector potentially raises lots of problems," says Elliott, "but what was unclear from the documentation of these mergers and acquisitions is whether the effects were good or bad. From this report, we just don't know."

Elliott adds that agricultural R&D in developing countries lacks investment and that "it would be a good thing if we could get some private sector resources going into innovation for developing country agriculture".

The ETC Group's report also touches on a larger debate about how to sustainably increase agricultural productivity.

Industrial farm monocultures are more productive per hectare for a single crop variety, according to the report, but diversified small-scale farms can produce more food per hectare overall.

Wetter argues that the continued expansion of industrial farming will actually mean less food production globally.

And she believes that more independent research needs to be carried out to critically assess the productivity of different agricultural systems.

"What we're trying to do is question the dominant paradigm that only industrial agriculture can feed people," she says. "The first step is to stop relying on agribusiness for information on how productive it is and to actually ask the question sincerely and try to figure it out."

The report makes a series of recommendations to national and international bodies with the aim of limiting the monopoly on intellectual property over vital agricultural resources.

>Link to full report


ETC Group, Putting the Cartel before the Horse...and Farm, Seeds, Soil, Peasants, etc.; Who Will Control Agricultural Inputs, 2013? (2013)