The Monsanto Merger Blues

09/19/2016 12:51 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2017

This week, hundreds of farmers from the National Farmers Union are converging on Washington DC to plead with decision makers to say "no" to a blockbusting roster of agribusiness mergers.

Farmers--and consumers--have reason to worry. This level of corporate consolidation will give these companies unprecedented power over our farms, our land and our food.

Chemical giant Bayer has just announced its intention to purchase Monsanto, the world's leading seed and pesticide supplier. Not to be left behind, DuPont and Dow, and Syngenta and ChemChina--the rest of the "Big Six" that already control 51% of seed and 72% of the pesticides in the international market--are in frantic merger negotiations. If they consolidate, three companies would control nearly 60% of the world's seeds. Why the rush to merge? Saturated markets have dropped profit margins. Corporate consolidation is the only way to increase returns to shareholders.

None of this has anything to do with feeding people.

We already produce 1 ½ times more than enough food to feed every person on the planet. Unfortunately, over a billion of the world's people are too poor to buy this food - so they go hungry. Corporate mergers aren't going to change that.

As suppliers consolidate, farmers lose power and choice and get stuck with high input prices and no alternatives at a time of painfully low grain prices. The only way to make their bottom line is to expand operations, getting ever bigger to cover their fixed costs. It's the way of capitalist agriculture. Too bad for young farmers seeking to break into agriculture--the land and technology bar has just been raised again. Monopolization increases the tendency of land consolidation- which means bigger farms and fewer farmers.

Seeds, inputs, machinery, financing, insurance, and big data provided by the corporate giants are made to deliver larger and larger batches of uniform products to retailers, that are also consolidating and vertically integrating. (Even Amazon, who is recruiting an army of agronomists, is planning to sell food through huge supply centers, where taxis and drones will ultimately deliver food to consumers.)

Big food and ag corporations need big farms and big (expensive) technology. Where will farmers get the money to upgrade? Land.

Banks now hold workshops in which they advise producers to sell their land as a business measure to recapitalize operations. They urge farmers to "financialize" by selling the US heartland to international investors whose time horizon is governed by the click of a mouse. Land will concentrate in the hands of those looking to reap profits from hundreds of thousands of land transactions carried out in the cybersphere far from the farms, the consumers seeking healthy, sustainably produced food, and beyond the empty bellies of the world's poor.

Institutional investors have already bought about $40 billion of agricultural land - they'd buy more if they could, but many farmers aren't yet willing to sell. In five years, however, 63% of agricultural land will be inherited or sold. The question is, who will take over? Financial investors or family farmers?

Right now, the front line of resistance to the continued corporatization and consolidation of agriculture in the United States is the commodity producer of corn and soybeans - the family farmers that are in Washington DC this week with the National Farmers Union voicing opposition to consolidation of the industry that determines their livelihoods.

But it's not just their livelihoods that are impacted by these potential mergers - it's our food and agricultural system as a whole. Food activists seeking to transform our food and agricultural system need to stand with those on the frontlines against the continued corporatization and financialization of agriculture. Contrary to the food movement's "good food" narrative, this means allying with conventional family farmers, especially those stuck on the pesticide-GMO-subsidy treadmill the movement so vehemently excoriates. We've got a lot to learn from them:

Family farmers have been pushing back against the corporate takeover of agriculture for more than a century. If farmers find a way to make money, the industry will find a way to take its cut. You saw it happen to commodity farmers when prices were high several years ago, and you see it now with large processors and big box retailers wanting to profit from the organic and sustainable food movement that farmers built. If farmers voluntarily pit themselves against each other because we are growing different things or using different production methods, the only winner will be the corporate food system. It's not easy to bring a diverse group of farmers - conventional commodities, livestock, dairy, fruits & vegetables, organic - together under one big tent. But we do it because we are fighting for the survival of the family farm, and we can't afford to choose up sides against each other.

- Jana Linderman, President Iowa Farmers Union

As far as corporate consolidation goes, it is time for the food movement to tactically align itself with the family farm movement, and with organizations like the National Farmers Union. It is in everyone's interest to keep the monopolies from consolidating, and ultimately to keep farmland ownership in the hands of farmers--not financial investors. This may be a bitter pill for some, but it is a far sight better than turning over our food system to corporate shareholders and financial investors.

Food and agricultural activists are calling on the US Department of Justice to evoke antitrust laws and stop the merger. Now is the time for the food movement to ally with those whose livelihoods depend upon stopping the continued financialization and corporatization of agriculture. Our food future depends on it.