In his critique of the modern agri-business, Miguel Altieri of the University of California at Berkeley points out that as transgenic crops are patented plants, indigenous farmers can lose rights to their own regional germplasm and not be allowed, under World Trade Organization regulations, to reproduce, share, or store the seeds of their harvest.”Protected by the WTO, multinational companies freely practice ‘biopiracy,’ which the Rural Advancement Foundation estimates is costing $5.4 billion (US) a year through lost royalties from food and drug companies using indigenous farmers’ germ plasm and medicinal plants.” Even more seriously, “As the new bioengineered seeds replace the old, traditional varieties and their wild relatives, genetic erosion will accelerate … and disrupt the biological complexity that underlines the sustainabiliy of traditional farming systems.”
Dr. William Heffernan of the Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri, in a report entitled, “Consolidation in the Food and Agriculture System,” warns that major concerns focus on the control exercised by a handful of firms over decision-making throughout the food system. Although economic power is usually exercised through the market share of the individual firm, “decision-making can also be exercised through the various relationships in which a firm is involved even if it does not hold a majority share,” he says. Further, “The changing nature of the food system suggests that relationships among the firms are becoming much more complex and much more important.”
The process begins with the granting of intellectual property rights by governments to biotechnology firms. The resulting food product always remains the product of the firm or cluster of firms: “Within this evolving system, there are no markets and therefore no ‘price discovery’ as the genes, fertilizer processing and chemical production move from the point of origin to the supermarket shelf. As this system evolves, even the price of livestock feed and its ingredients, such as corn, will not be known to the public, because … the product will not be sold. In a food chain cluster, the food product is passed along from stage to stage, but ownership never changes and neither does the location of the decision-making.”
In the case of food crops, the seed is given to the farmer who provides the labour and often some of the capital, but the crop belongs to the corporation rather than to the farmer. The farmer has therefore lost both his property rights and his right to make management decisions as the crop moves through the food processing system.
At the global level, “where there are no anti-trust regulations, oligopolies tend to emerge” rather than monopolies, because the number of corporate “food clusters” collect around the firms who have access to intellectual property rights: “The monopoly power that accompanies the intellectual property rights that leads to the control of the gene pool will be most difficult for any new or emerging cluster to obtain.”
To give just one example, a joint venture between Monsanto and Cargill in 1998 established one of the food chain clusters. The Cargill-Monsanto cluster is now in the process of obtaining control of the “terminator gene” that is inserted into plants to cause their seeds to be sterile. The use of the terminator gene will mean that all crop farmers must return each year to obtain their seed from seed firms.
Cargill’s most recent proposed acquisition, Continental Grain, would give the corporation control of more than 40 per cent of all U.S. corn exports, a third of all soybean exports and at least 20 per cent of wheat exports, along with Continental’s 70 inland grain elevators and seven export terminals. The data show that four firms, (Cargill, ADM, Continental and Bunge) control almost 60 per cent of the port facilities. Cargill paid about $1 billion for Continental, which is about half of their 1998 income. Their corporate goal is to continue to double in size every five to seven years as it has in the past 40 years.
Heffernan says that with the new agricultural technologies, neither the farmer nor the general public will know about or have control over the biotechnology or food additive content in their daily diet. At the present time, that remains proprietary information shared only by a small group of powerful economic elites, biotechnologists and players with vested interests in global-national governments.