Increasingly large in size, increasingly based on the use of digital. A new study, dubbed Food Barons, sheds light on the growing dominance of a small number of global food giants thanks to the growing use of big data and artificial intelligence. A recorded epoch change is the geographic one. After years of dominance by companies in North America and Europe, this sector sees China, Brazil and India as protagonists. However, the methods have not changed. In the reorganization of the global food chain, companies in the South have adopted the same model as their counterparts in the North: one based on the overexploitation of resources.
In particular, the pace and extent of the hyper-industrialization of the Chinese agri-food system are striking, capable of turning to a colossal national and global market, as evidenced by the Chinese group Syngenta, which quickly became a leader in the trade of seeds and pesticides. What are the risks ? Experts from the Etc Group, a public charity based in Canada that authored the report, explain: “When a handful of giant corporations are allowed to dominate in uncompetitive markets, with little regulatory oversight, they can use their market power to squeeze out competitors, raise prices, hijack the research and development agenda, monopolize technologies (even faulty and inefficient ones) and maximize profits”. The latter, despite the recent pandemic and the current food crisis, have increased to the point of creating a turnover of almost 10 trillion dollars. Let’s see who runs it together.
The seed queens
Specializing in the study of the relationships between socio-economic issues, ecology and technology, the Etc group has analyzed 11 food sectors, ranking the largest companies that dominate all links in the food chain at industrial and commercial level. In the field of seeds, the first fundamental link in the chain, the German company Bayer stands out (23% of the world market). It is followed by the American Corteva Agriscience (17%) and ChemChina/Syngenta (7%). The list then includes BASF, the French group Limagrain/Vilmorin & Cie and KWS. Below the Danish DLF seeds and two Japanese ones: Sakata Seeds and Kanelo.
The Chinese Rise
Another significant fact concerns agrochemicals: only two companies control more than 40% of this world market. It’s about Syngenta Group and Bayer. Until 25 years ago, the same percentage was controlled by 10 companies. Syngenta became the property of the Chinese government through the companies SinoChem and ChemChina. In 2020, the group controlled around a quarter of the global agricultural chemicals market. Sales of $15 billion outperformed historic agrochemical leaders Bayer and BASF. After the first two positions we find the German Basf and the American Corteva. After a certain margin of distance are the Upl based in India and the Fmc in the USA. Also from the People’s Republic of China, another 10 agrochemical companies are coming in the bed of the dominant companies. Among these is Sinofert, which ranks seventh in the ranking of companies producing synthetic fertilizers.
It does not perform better in terms of competition in the trade of agricultural raw materials. The concentration is such that in 2020 only ten traders dominated a market worth half a trillion dollars. Here too, there are Chinese companies, such as Cofco, a state-owned company specializing in oil, sugar and cotton, which has become the second largest trader of agricultural commodities in the world with sales of just over 100 billion dollars. In this context, the American Cargill remains in the lead, present in 70 countries and which reached 134 billion dollars in 2020. This is an impressive concentration in all areas that the authors of the report do not hesitate to qualify as “extreme oligopoly”.
Digital technology and rural control
This area is becoming increasingly difficult to scratch also thanks to technological innovations. Agribusiness giants are rapidly infiltrating the rural world, making maximum use of the resources made available by artificial intelligence. The report highlights concerted attempts to impose digital agriculture, from spray drones, robotic seeders and automated animal feeding operations, to facial recognition systems for livestock. Agricultural big data can also include weather information and crop forecasts, commodity market information, seed units purchased and planted, as well as fertilizer dosage and land measurements and mapping.
All data is collected, stored and analyzed using algorithms to make automated decisions in the business. The stated aim is to increase efficiency and profitability through so-called “precision farming”, but ETC experts read these technologies as a Trojan horse to erode the independence of agricultural entrepreneurs and their workers. Bayer’s Field View digital platform extracts 87.5 billion data points from 180 million acres (78.2 million hectares) of farmland in 23 countries and funnels them into the cloud and data servers. ‘Microsoft and Amazon AI to Generate New Business Strategies,’ reads the report, which continues, ‘These systems are displacing farmworkers, eroding farmers’ rights, and manipulating consumers.’
Foods at sea
The report also highlights new alliances, such as the one signed between the Middle East and Dutchman Louis Dreyfus, which operates in more than 100 countries with 17,000 employees. Positioned seventh in the commodity traders ranking, Dreyfus sold a 45% stake to a UAE-owned public holding company that manages $110 billion in assets in 2020. The sale included a long-term deal to ship food products in the United Arab Emirates. According to the report, these oil-rich countries are creating interactions with food giants to address climate change through offshore food production. A method, write the ETC experts, which has “little regard for sustainability or the concept of regional food self-sufficiency”.
Soaring prices and risk of famine
Food prices have soared in recent months, following the disruption caused by the war in Ukraine and the lingering impact of the Covid pandemic. Profits for major commodity and agrochemical traders soared, but at the same time the vulnerability of a system based on global imports, fertilizers and pesticides became apparent. “We need to remember that structural inequality and corporate concentration drive high food prices,” said Etc Group research director Jim Thomas, noting, “Agribusiness has failed to feed even a third of the planet’s population, while along the way it has destroyed ecosystems, economies and societies. As the food chain gets heavier, these businesses become more exposed and vulnerable. It’s time to overthrow, define and strip the power barons of their power. »
Farmers excluded from the land
The damage is not limited to controlling what we should sow and eat, eroding food variety and resilience, it is also affecting the world of work. According to the research, mainstream companies have exploited Covid to digitize processes and lay off workers due to the use of robotic technology in an increasing number of countries. “We uncovered a vast digital restructuring of the commercial food system, which includes AI, robots, drones and blockchains,” Thomas said, adding, “The concerns relate to customer manipulation, the subtraction of decision making to farmers, the substitution and algorithmic control of food chain workers and the climate costs of using data”.
China is arrogantly reappearing in the field of herbicides, where it has successfully entered over the past 25 years, thanks to the expiry of patents on successful products created by American and European competitors, such as Monsanto and Bayer. , which merged a few years ago. The creation from the 2000s of herbicide-tolerant seeds, created and marketed by the same companies, created a fatal agrochemical cocktail, so that the purchase of one product is inseparable from the other. Beijing now supplies nearly half of all global herbicide exports, including glyphosate. In this area, the other protagonist is India, capable of producing huge quantities of generic agrochemicals and making them available to a very large market. “Indian exports of herbicides (mainly glyphosate) increased by 19% annually between 2003 and 2015,” the report said. According to industry analysts, between 2017 and 2023, patents for more than 100 agrochemicals, worth $11 billion, have expired and will expire. The expansion of the two Asian giants therefore still has plenty of room for manoeuvre.
In the West, the old ladies of agrochemicals are not sitting idly by. If first-generation GMOs had been their battle horse in the mid-1990s, partially hampered in Europe by strict rules, today they offer genetic engineering in new forms. This time, the manipulation of plant DNA is presented as a panacea to fight the climate crisis, invoked to promote exclusive, expensive and “high tech” seeds. Biogenetic companies claim that the use of these technologies allows for greater efficiency, allowing growers to use fewer valuable resources such as water, fertilizers and pesticides. However, according to the report’s authors, these are tools that serve to bloat the coffers of Big Food without making meaningful improvements to crops or farming communities. New forms of control and dependence are on the horizon, for both farmers and consumers.
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