Corporate Control of Agriculture

The Overview

It is a law of economics: when too few players control 40% or more of a market, that market loses its competitiveness.

In agriculture, it is "agribusiness" that exerts corporate control and suppresses the market's competitiveness. Agribusiness is conducted mainly according to commercial principles. This translates to dominating markets and increasing profits as the industry's key focus.

The Challenges

A handful of multinational corporations controls the world's food industry.  This applies to global food production and distribution, sector by sector. For example, merely five companies now dominate the grain trading. Corporate mergers and acquisitions have led to this concentration of market power.

Greenpeace anti-GMO billboard at the headquarters of the council of the European Union. 04/20/2010 © Greenpeace / Philip Reynaers

This small group of multinationals determines what farmers sow and what we eat. This is the result of current circumstances in agribusiness.

Corporate control of agriculture has historical precedents. For example, four of today's dominant grain-trading players are the same as 100 years ago: Bunge, Cargill, Continental, and Louis Dreyfus.

What is new is the emergence of multinational supermarkets consolidating distribution and retailing and the agrochemical giants controlling seeds. This represents s few powerful companies dictating industry protocols to millions of small farmers, small suppliers — and to consumers.

Control of the food industry extends practically "from field to fork." The food-industry monopoly encompasses every agricultural sector, from the business of seeds, fertilizers, and machinery to food processing, transportation, and retailing.

Agribusiness dominates by claiming to "feed the world" — but the benefits go primarily to agribusiness and not to consumers. Specifically, agribusiness is by nature a production system where price is internal to the company's operation; competition is reduced; and profits for the dominant corporations are strategically increased. For example, one agribusiness practice is to genetically engineer crops. These crops are engineered to depend on chemicals that the same company sells. Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans fall into this category. This practice further concentrates the power of agribusiness; it enables the dominant players to sell not only the chemicals, but the patented seed to go with them.

Regarding the claim to "feed the world", an iconic example concerns Mexico. Today, scarcely more than 20 large agribusinesses control Mexican food and agriculture — and Mexico is now experiencing its worst food crisis in six decades.

Much food and agriculture legislation favors agribusiness. The case of Mexico exemplifies this imbalance. The Mexican food crisis is in part a result of policies and global trade agreements that liberalize trade and promote a globalized food economy. Mexico's current lack of food is happening after more than fifteen years after liberalized trade and investment between the US, Canada and Mexico [North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)].

Policies like NAFTA are maintained by politicians and corporate executives engaging in a political practice known as "revolving doors" — regularly swapping places in order to keep policies in place. This facilitates private corporations' entry of into areas of public interest that were formerly the preserve of local communities or governments.

The liberalization of markets also enables corporations to move their capital freely. Agreements under the World Trade Organization are structured to give corporations the freedom to operate wherever profits can be maximized. This, too, has facilitated the growth of corporate power.

The Ecological Farming Alternative

Ecological farming adapts agriculture to climate change by bringing diversity back to farms and fields—and by protecting natural biodiversity. Ecological farming practices are also sustainable, mitigating up to 70% of all of agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions.

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