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ETC Group released a very useful 48-page report, “Who Owns Nature?” on corporate concentration in commercial food, farming, health, and the strategic push to commodify the planet's remaining natural resources. Here are some key extracts from the section about the seed industry. For the full report:

“The lack of competition and innovation in the marketplace has reduced farmers' choices and enabled Monsanto to raise prices unencumbered.” – Keith Mudd, Organization for Competitive Markets, following Monsanto's decision to raise some GM maize seed prices by 35%.

Who Owns Nature? The seed industry

Report from ETC Group (extracts only)

In the first half of the 20th century, seeds were overwhelmingly in the hands of farmers and public-sector plant breeders. In the decades since then, Gene Giants have used intellectual property laws to commodify the world seed supply – a strategy that aims to control plant germplasm and maximize profits by eliminating Farmers' Rights.

Today, the proprietary seed market accounts for a staggering share of the world's commercial seed supply. In less than three decades, a handful of multinational corporations have engineered a fast and furious corporate enclosure of the first link in the food chain.

According to Context Network, the proprietary seed market (that is, brand-name seed that is subject to exclusive monopoly – i.e., intellectual property), now accounts for 82% of the commercial seed market worldwide. In 2007, the global proprietary seed market was US$22,000 million. (The total commercial seed market was valued at $26,700 million in 2007.) The commercial seed market, of course, does not include farmer-saved seed.

The World's Top 10 Seed Companies

Company – 2007 Seed sales (US$ millions) % of global proprietary seed market
Monsanto (US) $4,964m 23%
DuPont (US) $3,300m 15%
Syngenta (Switzerland) $2,018m 9%
Groupe Limagrain (France) $1,226m 6%
Land O' Lakes (US) $917m 4%
KWS AG (Germany) $702m 3%
Bayer Crop Science (Germany) $524m 2%
Sakata (Japan) $396m <2%
DLF-Trifolium (Denmark) $391m <2%
Takii (Japan) $347m <2%
Top 10 Total $14,785m 67% [of global proprietary seed market]

Source: ETC Group

The top 10 seed companies account for $14,785 million – or two-thirds (67%) of the global proprietary seed market.

The world's largest seed company, Monsanto, accounts for almost one-quarter (23%) of the global proprietary seed market.

The top 3 companies (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta) together account for $10,282 million, or 47% of the worldwide proprietary seed market.

ETC Group conservatively estimates that the top 3 seed companies control 65% of the proprietary maize seed market worldwide, and over half of the proprietary soybean seed market.

Based on industry statistics, ETC Group estimates that Monsanto's biotech seeds and traits (including those licensed to other companies) accounted for 87% of the total world area devoted to genetically engineered seeds in 2007.

The company claims that it licenses its biotech traits to an additional 250 companies. In 2007, almost half (48%) of DuPont's seed revenue came from products that carried a biotech trait. UK consultancy firm, Cropnosis, puts the global value of GM crops in 2007 at $6.9 billion.

Gene Giant’s Tech Cartel:

Cross-Enabling Agreements: Anti-trust regulators (anyone out there?) in Brussels and Washington take note: The Gene Giants are forging unprecedented alliances that render competitive markets a thing of the past. By agreeing to cross-license proprietary germplasm and technologies, consolidate R&D efforts and terminate costly IP litigation, the world's largest agrochemical and seed firms are reinforcing top-tier market power for mutual benefit. The trend isn't new, but the tech cartel deals are getting bigger and bolder.

In March 2007 the world's largest seed company (Monsanto) and the world's largest chemical corporation (BASF) announced a $1.5 billion R&D collaboration to increase yields and drought tolerance in maize, cotton, canola and soybeans.

ETC Group refers to this kind of partnership as a “non-merger merger” – all the benefits of consolidation and oligopoly markets without the anti-trust constraints. Industry analysts expect the agreements to have “lasting repercussions throughout the seed, biotech and crop protection industries.”

Biotech's most lucrative technical achievement is the engineering of crops to withstand a shower of chemical weed killers. Today, over 80% of the worldwide area devoted to genetically engineered crops carries at least one genetic trait for herbicide tolerance.

Sample Tech Cartel Agreements

Monsanto (the world's largest seed company) and BASF (the world's #3 agro-chemical firm) announce colossal $1.5 billion R&D collaboration involving 60/40 profit-sharing, respectively. “This is a great step forward in bringing to farmers higher yielding crops...” – BASF & Monsanto, joint news release (March 2007)

Monsanto & Dow Agrochemicals join forces to develop the first-ever genetically engineered maize loaded with eight genetic traits, for release in 2010. “Farmers will have more product choices to optimize performance and protection....” – Dow news release (Sept. 2007)

Monsanto and Syngenta agree to call a truce on outstanding litigation related to global maize and soybean interests, and forge new cross-licensing agreements. “We're pleased ... to put farmer customers first and reach an agreement that offers them tremendous benefits and choice in the seasons ahead.” – Monsanto news release (May 2008) 

Syngenta & DuPont announce an agreement that will broaden each company's pesticide product portfolios. "These products, which are highly complementary to our portfolio and pipeline, will provide additional options for growers...” – DuPont & Syngenta, joint news release (June 2008)

From industry's point of view, two or three biotech traits are a lot better than one because double and triple stacked traits generate nearly twice the profitability. Monsanto introduced its first double-stack trait variety in 1998, and its first triple-stack trait hit the market in 2005. A Monsanto spokesman told Progressive Farmer that 76% of the maize seed it sells in the U.S. in 2009 will be triple-stack varieties.

At a July 2008 meeting, Monsanto officials announced plans to raise the average price of some of the company's triple-stack maize varieties a whopping 35 percent. Fred Stokes of the U.S.-based Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) describes the implications for farmers: "A $100 price increase is a tremendous drain on rural America. Let's say a farmer in Iowa who farms 1,000 acres plants one of these expensive corn varieties next year. The gross increased cost is more than $40,000. Yet there's no scientific basis to justify this price hike. How can we let companies get away with this?"

The U.S. government is currently subsidizing sales of Monsanto's triple-stack maize seed by offering lower crop insurance premiums to farmers who plant it on non-irrigated land – because the biotech maize reportedly provides lower risk of reduced yields when compared to conventional hybrids. The pilot project is especially specious because the U.S. government relied on data from Monsanto to substantiate the claim.

“The lack of competition and innovation in the marketplace has reduced farmers’ choices and enabled Monsanto to raise prices unencumbered.” – Keith Mudd, Organization for Competitive Markets, following Monsanto's decision to raise some GE maize seed prices by 35%

July 2008 theme: GE crops as the cure-all technology that will increase production and feed the world. This time, GE crops are touted as the solution to the current food crisis and climate change (and peak oil). (The Biotechnology Industry Organization's current slogan is “Heal, fuel, feed the world.") The Gene Giants aim to convince governments, farmers and reluctant consumers that genetic engineering is the essential adaptation strategy to insure agricultural productivity in the midst of climate change. According to Monsanto, “everyone recognizes that the old traditional ways just aren't able to address these new challenges” – so the only hope is "climate ready” GM crops.

Bottom line

Patented gene technologies will not help small farmers survive climate change, but they will concentrate corporate power, drive up costs, inhibit public sector research and further undermine the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds.