Our food production system is broken, with steep losses in biodiversity. The answer is not more chemicals from a few increasingly dominant companies
British farmers growing wheat typically treat each crop over its growing cycle with four fungicides, three herbicides, one insecticide and one chemical to control molluscs. They buy seed that has been precoated with chemicals against insects. They spray the land with weedkiller before planting, and again after.
They apply chemical growth regulators that change the balance of plant hormones to control the height and strength of the grain’s stem. They spray against aphids and mildew. And then they often spray again just before harvesting with the herbicide glyphosphate to dessicate the crop, which saves them the energy costs of mechanical drying.
Most farmers around the world, whatever the crop, will turn to one of just six companies that dominate the market to buy all these agrochemicals and their seeds. The concentration of power over primary agriculture in such a small number of corporations, and their ability both to set prices and determine the varieties available, has already been a cause of concern among farmers. Yet by next year the competition is likely to shrink even further.
The six global chemical and seed giants will become three behemoths with even greater market control. Just when climate change demands a more diverse and adaptable food system, resilient to changing conditions, agriculture is being dragged further down an ever-narrowing agroindustrial route.
Bayer, Monsanto, Dupont, Dow, Syngenta and BASF currently account for three-quarters of the global agrochemical market and nearly two-thirds of the commercial seed market. As commodity prices have fallen, their profits have been flagging. Farmers who are getting less for their crops have struggled to make money. In the US they have begun turning away from expensive GM seed, and in Europe more than 3m farms have been lost in eight years. So for two years the agrochemical companies have been engaged in a flurry of merger and acquisition activity to become even bigger and more powerful. The bids have settled, for the moment, on a trio of megadeals.
The most recently agreed merger, worth $66bn, is between Monsanto, the controversial US-headquartered giant that is the world’s largest seed and seventh-largest pesticide company, and German-based Bayer, the world’s second-largest agrochemical and seventh-largest seed company.
To give a sense of the scale of this deal and its impact, Monsanto, as well as being the leading global supplier of genetically modified seed, controls nearly a quarter of the vegetable seed market in Europe and is a big player in conventional maize seed. The herbicide glyphosphate, its big earner, is now so commonly used across Europe that it has been detected in the urine of 44% of people surveyed for Friends of the Earth. Bayer is a leader in most pesticides, including neonicotinoids used to treat about 90% of UK cereal, sugar beet and oil seed rape.
The proposed Bayer-Monsanto merger follows a $130bn deal between the US corporates DuPont (No 2 in seeds, 6 in pesticides) and the Dow Chemical company (5 in seeds, 4 in pesticides). China, focused on its own food security, wants a bit of the action too, and its state-backed agrochemical companyChemChina (seventh in global pesticide sales via subsidiaries) has successfully bid $43bn for Swiss Syngenta. A parallel process of concentration is taking place in the fertiliser sector.
The narrative offered to justify this dominance of a supposedly free market is that only bigger, braver new entities can rise to the great challenge of our time: how to feed an additional 3 billion people by 2050 without destroying the planet. We are asked to accept the intensive model of agriculture as the heroic march of science, against primitive, low-yielding, traditional methods of production. There is no alternative. But in fact it is this model of food production that is stuck in a rut.
Postwar, there were indeed huge strides in increasing the amount of food produced globally thanks to plant breeding and the use of chemicals in the form of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. But alongside the triumphs of that green revolution, its longer-term shortcomings are increasingly apparent.
Overuse of agrochemicals has contributed to steep losses in biodiversity, and crucially of pollinators vital to food. Increases in pest resistance threaten to reverse previous gains in yields. Research has found that over a short period yields per hectare for individual crops are greater in intense agricultural systems. But over a longer period, and when you look at total farm output, more mixed and diverse farming produces more.
If the prime purpose of a food system is to nourish people and keep them healthy, this one is failing. Despite a doubling of available food in some regions, more than 750 million people still routinely go hungry. At the same time nearly 2 billion are overweight or obese.
The agroindustrial system these companies underpin is primarily focused on a small number of commodity crops for export. The ETC research group points out that GM seed companies have concentrated their development efforts on maize, soya and rapeseed (canola) rather than a wide range of the 7,000-odd food crops grown by farmers around the world. Breaking these commodity crops down into their constituent parts and reselling them as sugars, starches, and fats adds shareholder value in the chain but depletes nutritional value. Diet-related diseases have now overtaken infectious diseases as the largest cause of premature death globally.
Although the companies talk of tackling the threat that climate change poses to food security, the agroindustrial food system is one of the most significant causes of it, contributing a third of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions.
Corporate concentration in the food system has sucked the money to be made in the chain up to a handful of companies at the top. It works for the few but not for the many. As if to underline the point, the chief executive of Monsanto stands to collect over $135m from the Bayer merger in share options and severance pay. But paradoxically, these three mergers to increase power reveal a sector that is also vulnerable. The pesticide business is under pressure – Bayer and Syngenta are both big producers of the three types of neonicotinoids recently banned in the EU because of their impact on bees. The EU has been under pressure too to restrict the use of glyphosphate, since it was ruled a “probable carcinogen” by the WHO last year.
This way of producing our food is broken and most people, including those still promoting it, know it. So why does it not change? The former UN rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, has described a series of “lock-ins” that prevent change. Because value accrues to a limited number of actors, their political and economic power and ability to influence government policy is reinforced.
The latest frontier is Africa, where there is a new scramble to spread the agroindustrial model of farming. It may well be in Africa, however, that a different, more ecological vision of the food future emerges. I had a glimmer of it on a trip to a large-scale horticultural export company based on Kenya’s Lake Naivasha.
The company, Flamingo Homegrown, has abandoned its long and heavy use of chemical pesticides, partly in response to a campaign highlighting their effect on workers’ health, but partly too in recognition that they were on a losing treadmill of spraying and pest resistance.
They have reinvented their agriculture in a way that makes the science of agrochemical use look as primitive as a blunderbuss. Instead they employ groups of highly trained African scientists to study and reproduce in labs the fungi and microrrhizae in healthy soil that form intricate links with plant roots. Rather than waging chemical war on the land, they are working to harness its immensely complex ecosystems. They have built vast greenhouses dedicated to breeding and harvesting ladybirds to control pests biologically rather than chemically.
There is an another route to food security – and it is the polar opposite of three agrochemical giants bestriding the world.