Do Monsanto and Big Ag control crop research and world food supply?
At a Glance
According to anti-GMO activists, “The real purpose of GM foods is to give giant corporations legally-enforceable monopoly powers over the entire global food chain.” Major corporations are alleged to control the production of the overwhelming majority of patented seeds and 75% of the world’s pesticides market.
Although these claims are rampant throughout the Internet and are often cited by the mainstream media, verification is is impossible, based on available public data. While the seed industry has undergone major consolidation in the biotech era, there remain several thousand smaller and midsize seed producers around the world.
It can be said that large companies dominate the corn and soybean row crop markets (particularly in the United States and South America), based on the popularity of their GMO seed offerings. But when considering global food supply, one must factor in crops such as wheat— still largely developed by public universities—and many other staple crops such as rice, cassava, sorghum, sweet potatoes, potatoes, plantains and yam for which there are no commercial GMO varieties and that receive limited attention from Monsanto and its competitors. Increasingly fewer numbers of farmers in the developed world save seeds for future use because they are not as productive as hybrids and GMOs.
Science and Politics
Seed slavery is ethically important to address because it transforms the Earth family into corporate property. It is ecologically important because with seeds in the hands of five corporations, biodiversity disappears, and is replaced by monocultures of GMOs. … In our times some corporations think it is alright to own life on earth through patents and intellectual property rights (IPR). Patents are granted for inventions, and life is not an invention. These IPR monopolies on seeds are also creating a new bondage and dependency for farmers who are getting trapped in debt to pay royalties.
The ETC Group, an NGO that has been critical of market consolidation, estimates that the top seven firms control 71 percent of the world’s commercial seed market, based on 2013 sales reports and other unspecified data. Looking at only cotton, soybeans and corn, the group said three firms—Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta—control 60 percent of the market.
Complaints have grown as these large firms have forced a consolidation of the world’s seed industry, once dominated by smaller family-owned operations. These purchases, which picked up in the early 1990s, have been made, in part, to supply the companies with the germplasm needed for the research that fuels seed development.
The consolidation has been criticized by those who say it reduces the options available to farmers and forces an overreliance on a small number of companies. Among critics is Phillip Howard, from Michigan State University’s Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies:
This consolidation is associated with a number of impacts that constrain the opportunities for renewable agriculture. Some of these include declining rates of saving and replanting seeds, as firms successfully convince a growing percentage of farmers to purchase their products year after year; a shift in both public and private research toward the most profitable proprietary crops and varieties, but away from the improvement of varieties that farmers can easily replant; and a reduction in seed diversity, as remaining firms eliminate less profitable lines from newly acquired subsidiaries.
It is difficult to verify these claims because of numerous unknown factors, including the proprietary information from these companies, accurate sales data from much smaller competitors, and data on the amount of non-commercial seeds used in farming.
In the past, Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, has pegged its own share of the worldwide seed market at 5 percent, noting that there are many crop areas in which the company has little or no participation. When asked by GMO FAQ in June 2016 for further clarification, the company said:
Aggregate commercial sales by all seed companies only account for about forty percent of the total volume of seeds used globally. Of those commercial seed sales, two-thirds of the seed volume comes from private breeding programs and one-third comes from national or public institutions. The remaining non-commercial seed volume is seed saved and replanted by farmers. As for commercial seed, the competition is quite robust as more than 1,000 separate seed companies supply the many types of commercial seed that are sold globally. Monsanto participates in only a few crops, with the two largest being corn and soybeans. While Monsanto is one of the largest commercial seed companies, even in those crops the company probably accounts for less than one-third of global commercial volume.
It is easier to look at the biotech industry’s footprint in the United States, a top market for several row crop staples. Roughly 90 percent of all corn and soybeans planted are genetically modified. And the top biotech companies are responsible for most, if not all, of those sales. In 2014, for example, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer controlled 70 percent of the corn market and 61 percent of the soybean market.
Critics complain that this dominance by a handful of major corporations which sell patented seeds gives the industry a monopoly in top grain markets. If proposed agrochemical mergers go through—Bayer with Monsanto, Dupont with Dow Chemical and ChemChina with Syngenta—this concentration could become even greater.
The fear of corporate control of research has been leveled at all agricultural firms, but most pointedly at Monsanto. It was raised by one of Monsanto’s own competitors, Dupont Pioneer, in 2010 while the two firms were fighting over a licensing deal. Monsanto, an early innovator in the field, sells licenses to its competitors, allowing them to use traits developed by Monsanto. Through those agreements and its own seeds, Monsanto biotech traits can be
The ag biotech trait market is firmly in the grip of a single supplier, acting as a bottleneck to competition and choice… it also threatens the global goals for agriculture in the 21st Century doubling the world’s food supply by 2050.
At the heart of the concerns are the patents that protect the seeds and traits developed by the extensive research arms of the biotech companies. The patents and end-user agreements, regulating how seeds may be used, have become more common in recent decades, despite the fact that hybrid seeds have been sold since the 1930s. Farmers must purchase new seeds each year. (Many maintain that is what farmers would prefer to do, anyway, as patented seeds generally grower truer, their higher cost more than made up by lower inputs and increased yields.) And while these patent protections are heavily used by the large biotech firms who sell to the conventional and organic seed markets, they also are employed by some exclusively organic seed producers as well.
Some analysts, lIke futurist Ramez Namm, have challenged the argument that major chemical and agriculture companies have a lock on the future of the seed supply, for one very specific reason: patents end. The patent for Roundup, the trade name for the chemical glyphosate which is paired with herbicide resistant crops, expired years ago, and there are now many competing manufacturers. Patents for Monsanto’s first commercial genetically modified crop, Roundup Ready Soy I, expired at the end of the 2014 growing season.
The University of Arkansas has released free, replantable versions of Roundup Ready Soy. Any farmer can take this seed, plant it, doesn’t have to pay any technology licensing fee, save it, and re-plant seeds from the resulting crop for future years–the very seed saving scenario that critics say is at the heart of their concerns about corporate concentration. However, others have pointed out that this development will provide only limited additional options to most farmers, many of whom depend on international export markets. These specific unpatented GMO seeds may not be accepted for export by China or other foreign markets, meaning the global regulatory structure might unwittingly keep in place monopoly practices.
Over the years, there has been considerable complaining among critics, and some in the scientific research community, over access restrictions that have resulted from the patents and licensing agreements. Among other things, the agreements stipulated that the seeds cannot be used for research without the approval of the company. The industry defended the practice as part of its efforts to protect intellectual property from competitors and piracy. This regulatory reality limits the promise of so-called Open Source GMOs.
This prompted a mini uprising in 2009, when a group of corn scientists accused biotech companies of standing in the way of research. In a statement to the Environmental Protection Agency, they said that because of those policies: “No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions.” The effort prompted an editorial in Scientific American urging the companies to end the restrictions on academic research:
It would be chilling enough if any other type of company were able to prevent independent researchers from testing its wares and reporting what they find—imagine car companies trying to quash head-to-head model comparisons done by Consumer Reports, for example. But when scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation’s food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country’s agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous.
That article is still cited frequently by GMO critics, although the access situation has improved significantly since 2009. The scientific community does not have unfettered access to seeds, but many of the companies have reached agreements with universities, loosening restrictions. Monsanto, for example, offers licenses, which it said was in place even before the 2009 dust-up, granting access to its commercial products for researchers at 100 US universities.
The blanket agreement allows university scientists to work with Monsanto’s commercial seed products without contacting the company or signing a separate contract for each study. This blanket agreement— the Academic Research License (ARL)—enables academic researchers to do research with commercialized products with as few constraints as possible. ARLs are in place with all major agriculturally-focused US universities—about 100 in total.
In 2013, one of the original complaining scientists, Elson Shields of Cornell University, was asked if things have improved. He told Nathanael Johnson of Grist:
If you are at a major agricultural school that’s negotiated an agreement with the companies, it’s working fine…. Each company has to decide how many universities to make those agreements with. What justification they have and why they pick one over the other, that’s above my pay grade. It may be that they know there’s a scientist whose work they don’t like, so they don’t choose that university.
Corn and soybean farmers in the United States may face more limited choices in terms of the seed companies they can purchase from. But farmers are business people and not forced to buy patented seeds. They do it because those seeds historically represent the best chance at profitability, through strong yields and lower input costs.
Related GMO FAQs
- Are organic and non-GMO farming more sustainable than farming using GMOs?
- Do GMOs encourage monoculture cropping and reduce biodiversity?
- Where are GMOs grown and banned?
- Why are there no long-term GMO safety studies or studies on humans?
- Biotech opponents claim Monsanto ‘controls’ the world food supply? What are the facts? Steve Savage, June 16
- Challenging myths: Yes, seeds that grow organic food are often patented, Andrew Porterfield, August 7, 2015
- Does Monsanto “control” the world food supply by abusing patent protections? Andrew Porterfield, August 4, 2015
- A Missing Puzzle Piece For Farmers: Organic Seed, Virginia Gewin, Civil Eats, June 21, 2016
- Seeds, Syrup and Subversion, BBC Radio, June 19, 2016
- The Seeds Of Suicide: How Monsanto Destroys Farming, Vandana Shiva, Global Research, March 9, 2016
- Intellectual Property and Consolidation in the Seed Industry, Phillip Howard, Michigan State University, Alliance of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Science Societies journal, October 19, 2015
- Threats to Food Security & Climate Resilience, ETC Group, September 15, 2015
- Seed Competition Heats Up Sonja Begemann, AgWeb, 2015
- Unearthed: Are patents the problem? Tamar Haspel, The Washington Post, September 29, 2014
- The GMO Seed Monopoly: Fewer Choices, Higher Prices, Ken Roseboro, Food Democracy Now, October 4, 2013
- Commercial (Conventional and Biotech/GM) Seeds Market for Soybean, Corn, Cotton and Others – Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends and Forecast, 2012 – 2018, Transparency Market Research, July 11, 2013
- Monsanto, the court and the seeds of dissent, George Kimbrell and Debbie Barker, op-ed Los Angeles Times, February 19, 2013
- Seed companies consolidate, Mark Moore, Farm Industry News, March 17, 2011
- Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research? Editorial, Scientific American, August 1, 2009