Consolidation in global seed industry threatens agrobiodiversity

Susan Mackenzie

Student in : Sustainable Food Systems AS 420.668.81

As American farmers grapple with lower crop prices and rising seed prices, they face the daunting prospect of further consolidation in the seed and agrochemical industries, which are currently dominated by only a handful of firms. This increasing dominance by only a few firms among key crops, such as corn and soybean, is supporting the intensification and homogenization of farming systems, which is one of the major drivers of agricultural biodiversity loss, contributing to both increased genetic erosion and vulnerability.


Consolidation in global seed industry threatens agrobiodiversity


Since the origins of agriculture, farmers have been saving and managing seeds to improve their harvests, developing new varieties in response to dietary needs or environmental vicissitudes. Yet a strategy so fundamental to farming is rapidly disappearing as seed patents, owned by just a few large corporations, restrict farmers from preserving seeds. For Moe Parr, a seed cleaning operator in Indiana, the impact has been personal. In 2007 he was sued by Monsanto for allegedly cleaning seeds covered by one of the company’s patents; his story was featured in the movie Food Inc. Monsanto’s army of patent attorneys successfully won a permanent injunction against Mr Parr prohibiting him from cleaning Roundup Ready® soybeans.

Mr Parr’s story highlights the growing dominance of a handful of firms in the global seed and agrochemical industries. According to ETC Group, seven firms control 71 percent of the global seed market, while only six firms comprise 75 percent the global agrochemical industry.

These industries may soon become even more concentrated. Two proposed mergers could exacerbate troubles for farmers who are already contending with falling crop prices and rising seed prices. In December 2015, Dow Chemical Co. and DuPont Co. announced plans to merge into a $122 billion company before spinning out its combined agricultural business. The companies intended to close the deal by the end of 2016, although that now looks unlikely following the European Union’s antitrust authority opening a comprehensive investigation into the merger in August. Meanwhile, ChemChina is set to acquire Syngenta in a $43 billion deal. And just last month Bayer and Monsanto announced plans to merge into a $66 billion company that will dominate the corn, soybean and cottonseed markets. It is interesting to note that when Monsanto bought Delta & Pine Land Co in 2007, anti-trust regulatory approvals forced it to divest its Stoneville Pedigree Seed unit, which it subsequently sold to Bayer.

As genetically engineered (GE) crops dominate the seed market for several key crops – and especially as they are controlled by only a few powerful firms – not only do farmers suffer, but also so does agrobiodiversity. Intensely farmed monocultures are one of the major drivers of agricultural biodiversity loss, through increased genetic erosion and vulnerability. As Michael Pollan points out, the ‘biological pollution’ of transgenes, which drift more freely than natural ones, cannot be easily eradicated. The FAO estimates that over the last 100 years we have lost about 75 percent of the genetic diversity in our agricultural crops. Moreover, today only 15 plant and eight animal species account for 90 percent of our food energy.

As a result of the injunction, Mr Parr lost 90-95 percent of his soybean cleaning business. He still cleans seeds for a few customers who do not use GE products, but non-GE seeds are becoming increasingly difficult to source. And the impact of seed patents extends far beyond Mr Parr. Whereas there once were 250-300 seed cleaning businesses in Indiana, today there are only five.

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