An oligopoly takes shape to corner the human food supply.
By Don Quijones, Spain & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.
The hunter, it seems, has become the hunted. After wresting control of roughly a quarter of the global seeds market by acquiring a massive portfolio of seed companies, including Agroceres, Asgrow, Cristiani Burkard, Dekalb, Delta & Pine and the seeds division of Cargill North America, Monsanto now suddenly finds itself on the menu of two very powerful, much bigger rivals.
On Thursday, it was reported that Germany’s two chemical-industry titans Bayer and BASF, both of which have a market capitalization more than double Monsanto’s, are mulling a takeover bid.
Reaping a Whirlwind
In many ways, Monsanto has only itself to blame. When it launched a hostile bid for Swiss-based pesticides behemoth Syngenta last year, it sparked a massive consolidation race in the agrochemical industry. In the end it was the Chinese state-owned giant ChemChina that walked away with the spoils, at a dizzying price of €43 billion.
It was the largest corporate takeover of Chinese history and it sent a clear signal of China’s intention to become a global player in the GMO market. In a speech in late 2014, the President of China Xi Jinping said that China “cannot let foreign companies dominate the GMO market.”
For Monsanto, meanwhile, things are looking shaky. For the first time ever, it finds itself on the receiving end of another company’s untoward attentions. With just days to go before this year’s edition of the global March Against Monsanto Day (Sat. May 21), it also faces the bleak prospect not only of multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuits for selling, over the course of decades, a weedkiller that it allegedly knew was harmful to human health but also a wave of anti-GMO leglislation across key markets, including India, Mexico, the EU and even in the U.S.
In the past year U.S. regulators delayed approval of a key new weed killer, dicamba, amidst ongoing fears that European regulators would refuse to license products containing the chemical.
This was the last thing the company needed following the decision by scientists at the World Health Organization (WHO) to label glyphosate, the herbicide key to Monsanto’s flagship Roundup weedkiller, as a probable carcinogen. The result has been a rare crisis of confidence for the once indomitable GMO giant, whose shares are now down 19% from a year ago, despite the buyout bid.
A Worrying Trend
The reports of Bayer and BASF’s interest in Monsanto are indicative of a deeply worrying trend: the increasing concentration of power and control over the global food chain. In January this year the USA’s two biggest chemical companies, DuPont and Dow Chemicals, announced their intention to tie the knot in a monster-merger estimated to be worth $130 billion. The marriage won’t be fully consummated until the U.S. regulators complete their review of the proposed merger, which is expected to occur towards the end of June. At that point, the global certified seeds industry will become one of the most concentrated markets on planet Earth.
Never before in the history of human agriculture and food have we faced such serious concentration of power and ownership of the global seed industry, the primary link of the global food chain, warns Silvia Ribeiro, a researcher for Mexico’s Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group). In 2016, just six American and European companies – Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer and Basf – control 100% of the GM seeds planted in the world.
Those six could soon be four.
Such concentration of the seed industry is a wholly new phenomenon. Thirty-five years ago, there were thousands of seed manufacturers and not a single one of them had more than 1% control of the global market. Fifteen years later, the top ten companies had captured 30% of the market, yet Monsanto was not among them. Now it controls 26% of the entire global market of all seeds, not just GMOs, according to research by ETC Group. Between them Monsanto, second-placed Dupont, and third-placed Syngenta control 53% of the market.
By contrast Bayer’s market share is a meager 3.3%. Its main area of expertise is developing pesticides, but if it pulled off the merger, the deal would create the world’s largest supplier of seeds and farm chemicals. It remains a big “IF,” however. Bayer would need to take on a huge amount of debt in order to acquire Monsanto; and US anti-trust regulators have woken up recently.
There’s the reputational risk — for Bayer. Monsanto remains the world’s most despised company and as such could be more of a curse than a blessing. And Monsanto is weighed down by debt that it raised to fund its $10 billion share buyback program to prop up its shares.
The Glyphosate Merry-Go-Round
Question marks also continue to hang over glyphosate, the key ingredient not only of Monsanto’s Roundup brand but also many of the products sold by other agrochemical companies, including BASF, Syngenta, Dow Chemical, DuPont and China’s Zhejiang Wynca Chemical.
In Europe, the debate on whether to renew the license for glyphosate continues to rage. Although public opposition to the use of the chemical is blossoming, the final decision on whether to renew the license is more likely to be shaped by the interests of Europe’s powerful biotech lobby, which as a recent report by Corporate Europe Observatory shows, has infiltrated just about every relevant regulatory and policy body in Brussels.
One of the most influential organizations is a German-based lobby consultancy called Genius, which helps run the website of the Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), an industry platform uniting producers of glyphosate-based herbicides including Monsanto, while also providing helpful advice to EU and German public authorities on topics that are of key interest to biotech corporations.
The fact that Germany’s 12th and 14th biggest corporations now have a potentially vital stake in the outcome of the glyphosate debate is likely to stack the odds even further in the biotech lobby’s favor. It’s often forgotten that Germany, famed for its anti-nuclear activism and passionate environmentalism, is also, as Le Monde puts it, “a paradise for pesticides manufacturers.”
So a new panel of pesticide experts from the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization just announced that “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.”
And just like that, the official scientific consensus is muddied enough to leave most global consumers wondering what is up and what is down, while those who control the seeds of the food we eat are fusing into an ever tighter and more powerful oligopoly. By Don Quijones, Raging Bull-Shit
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