Seed Oligarchs

That’s what the recent report from Center for Food Safety calls the giant agrichemical seed companies that hold dominion over seeds. Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta, according to the report, now control 53 percent of the global commercial seed market. The culprit? A system of corporate friendly laws and regulations. The “current intellectual property regime has resulted in seed industry consolidation, rising seed prices, loss of germplasm diversity, and the strangling of scientific inquiry.”

This was not always the case. For most of this country’s history farmers and public sector scientists played a big role in developing “crop varieties that form the basis of modern agriculture.” More importantly, notes the report, that “these tremendous advances were made without any system of ‘innovation-promoting’ intellectual property protections for plants.” However, changes to laws and a series of lawsuits opened the gateway for the patenting of genetic material of seeds.

Amidst this patent rush there was also a push to consolidate. “The agricultural biotechnology industry emerged through the rapid acquisition of existing seed firms by chemical and pesticide companies such as Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow.” Between 1996 and 2009, at least 200 independent seed companies were bought out and consolidated.

As biotech companies acquire conventional seed companies, however, conventional and organic seeds are pushed out.

And here we are. “[W]hat was once a freely exchanged renewable resource is now privatized and monopolized.”

With consolidation comes power to dictate terms of what we eat, how farmers farm and the direction of research and innovation.  Monsanto’s dominance alone — the company accounts for nearly 27 percent of the global commercial seed sales, according to the report, and its genetic traits appear in over 90 percent of US soybeans and 80 percent of corn — caused the U.S. Department of Justice to stop and think (but ultimately and quietly) decide not to pursue an antitrust probe.

Encouraged by such power, the company is not afraid to flex its corporate muscle. According to the report, Monsanto’s aggressive pursuit of farmers — filing 142 alleged seed  patent infringement lawsuits involving 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in 27 states — even against farmers whose fields suffered genetic contamination by the companies’ seeds, has caused organic and conventional farmers to seek judicial protection. (See our coverage of the lawsuit here.) Sums awarded to Monsanto in 72 recorded judgments, highlights the report, total $23,675,820.99. And Monsanto is not alone in such corporate policing.  DuPont, the report points out, has recently decided that US and Canadian farmers need to be monitored and hired at least 45 Canadian investigators and is said to hire 35 U.S. investigators to do its police work.

Other equally important by-products of agricultural dominance by the seed oligarchs is escalating seed prices, reduced innovation, stifling of independent research, and loss of biodiversity.

In many ways the report is a U.S. echo of the farmer cries around the world. From Mexico to India and beyond, there’s been a growing resistance of the choke-hold imposed on farmers by the seed oligarchs.

Dr. Vandana Shiva, the physicist and eco-feminist, for example, has for years been vocal about the ruinous effect of the patent system. In a recent article discussing the plight of Indian farmers using genetically modified cotton, she said that it is the “control over seed, the first link in the food chain, the source of life which is our biggest concern. When a corporation controls seed, it controls life.” She points her finger at the patent system as a major cause of the problem. “Through patents on seeds, Monsanto has become the “Life Lord” on the planet, collecting rents from life’s renewal and from farmers, the original breeders.”

Similarly, at the World Social Forum in Tunis this past March, the speakers emphasized the importance of seed diversity in agriculture, drawing, much like Dr. Shiva, the connection between seed, life, livelihood, historical roots and community ties. “It has become crucial to defend the seeds,” noted an article discussing the Tunis forum. “In the past 20 or 30 years, what was once seen as normal – peasant farmers growing, selecting, saving and exchanging seeds – has come under attack from corporations seeking to control and commodify the very basis of agriculture.”

“Corporations want farmers to buy industrial seeds – and the fertiliser and pesticides necessary to grow them. So they need to prevent peasants from continuing to develop, produce and exchange their own seeds,” noted participants of the Tunis forum.

Several of the alternatives encouraged by the Tunis forum included fighting against laws that strip peasants of their rights regarding seed, preventing GMO cultivation and resisting and overturning laws that allow their expanded use. “Agribusiness exists not to feed people, but to create and dominate/sustain markets,” explained the participants.

The Center for Food Safety’s report makes several recommendations of its own including advocating changes to the legal framework, promoting fair access to land and vital natural resources, and encouraging agroecological farming methods, which a United Nations’ report says can double food production in ten years.

“Seeds are a product of nature. Corporations did not create seeds.”

  • Your1Friend

    Antitrust Laws: Wouldn’t it be great if we actually had such laws?!? and/or

    Antitrust Laws: Wouldn’t it be great if we actually enforced such laws?!?

    Antitrust Laws: Wouldn’t it be great if we actually had a legal system that wasn’t almost completely broken and corrupted?!?