Dangerous seed monopolies

Dangerous seed monopolies

For thousands of years, it has been farmers who have preserved, improved and grown seeds. Next to land itself, seeds are their most important capital. With the ‘Green Revolution’ and the industrialisation of agriculture, however, farmers are increasingly losing control over their seeds. Globally, two thirds of seeds are now traded commercially, i.e. sold by seed companies. The final third is the seeds that farmers keep back from their harvests or exchange with one another. This is the case particularly in developing nations..

On the commercial seed market, an unprecedented process of concentration has taken place in the last few years. Multinationals such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta, which for many years were solely manufacturers of agricultural chemicals, have been systematically developing their seed divisions, mainly through the acquisition of other seed companies. This has resulted today in two thirds of the global commercial seed market being controlled by just ten companies. This small group of global players is also very well linked. An article published in December 2009 gives a very concrete visualisation of their size and market dominance (see graphic, see full article).

These companies are using their dominant market position to dictate what farmers can cultivate, how they have to cultivate it and how much they have to pay for it. When seeds and agricultural chemicals are provided by a single company, farmers are sold the whole package: seeds plus fertiliser plus pesticide. This increases sales volumes. The possibility of patenting seeds is also enabling companies to build up their monopoly position – now, it is not only genetically modified plants that are patented, but also conventional varieties. Patents protect nationally supported monopoly rights over the seeds, which the companies assert both over farmers and over downstream processing companies.

A study published in April 2009 illustrates this link very clearly. In the USA, Monsanto has brought a case against a group of farmers for allegedly violating patent rights. At the same time, seed prices have risen sharply. For example, the prices of corn and soy bean seeds, which are now mostly genetically modified, have doubled in ten years. But, as the study shows, these more expensive seeds do not produce double the yield. In addition, the genetically modified seeds are also many times more expensive than organic seeds, according to a report published in December 2009.

This domination by multinational seed companies is dangerous. Experience shows that these companies use their market power to keep prices high. On the one hand, this makes food more expensive, which has dramatic consequences above all for the urban poor in the Global South. And on the other hand, it drives more and more farmers to bankruptcy; forced to sell their farms, these farmers often also lose their land and – as the tragic example from India shows – sometimes, deep in debt, they see suicide as the only way out. The dominance of the seed corporations thus leads to greater poverty and hunger in the countryside.

But even in wealthy countries such as Switzerland, it is vital that control over the basis of our food supply is not relinquished to a handful of multinational corporations. Seeds and agriculture are key social issues that must be brought back into the centre of the debate because, ultimately, our future is dictated by whoever controls food production.