We are at a crossroads. Credit: USDA
This is the second blog in a series exploring the impacts of consolidation and concentration in the agriculture industry on farmers and the broader food system. The series is authored by NSAC Policy Associate Billy Hackett, with meaningful contributions by farmers and experts. Read the first entry: The Time is Ripe for Competition and Antitrust Reform in Agriculture.
“The plants can tell us her story; we need to learn to listen.”
Land and seed once belonged to no one and were shared by all, replicating the giving essence of the natural world. Today, these precious resources are tightly controlled and commoditized inputs. The modern U.S. food and agriculture system is designed to maximize a narrow concept of economic efficiency which fails to prioritize the well-being of small family farmers, rural communities, or the land.
This is the same system that disproportionately harms Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, one rooted in the living consequences of Indigenous genocide, Black enslavement, and Latinx displacement and which continues to depend on a foundation of exploited labor. Meanwhile, the multifaceted benefits of traditional Indigenous farming practices – which produced an abundance of nutritious food while replenishing soil nutrients, preserving the freedom of wild animals, and even controlling weeds and pests – are being appropriated and rebranded as “alternatives” to today’s conventional, industrial agriculture model without proper credit or compensation.
What role did corporate consolidation and concentration play in the commoditization and appropriation of seed and farming practices? How does this impact farmers? How might we learn from the past to move forward?
Seed and biotechnology consolidation
Believe it or not, farmers in the United States did not always need to purchase their own seed. Instead, a core function of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) when it was founded in 1862 – and the Patent Office before that – was the collection and public distribution of germplasm, or seed. The federal government mailed millions of seed packages to farmers across the country, free of charge. Farmers were encouraged to save and share seed as well as experiment with crops to breed varieties that met their specific, regional needs. These practices sustained innovation and bolstered profits for farmers at a time when agriculture was the country’s chief economic engine.
Free distribution of public domain seeds to farmers across the country is no longer the case. Today, seed is treated as a privatized agricultural input. According to a recent report by the Family Farm Action Alliance, The Food System: Concentration and Its Impacts, just four multinational biotechnology corporations are responsible for at least 50 percent of sales in the global seed market: Bayer, Corteva, Limagrain, and ChemChina. Meanwhile, Bayer, Corteva, and ChemChina as well as BASF are responsible for roughly 65 percent of market concentration in the agrochemicals industry, which includes herbicide and pesticide development.
How did we get here?
“Seed used to be managed as an open, public resource,” began Kiki Hubbard, Advocacy and Communications Director at Organic Seed Alliance, when asked to recount what led to the consolidation and concentration of the seed industry. “It has quickly become one of our most privatized resources.”
Though seed distribution programs were immensely popular among farmers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, emerging private seed breeders and horticulturalists lobbied the federal government – their biggest competitor – to end the program in 1924. This early seed industry bears little resemblance to the industry today. Small and regionally-based private seed companies acted mainly as breeders of regional seed and distributors of publicly developed seed varieties. In contrast, today’s dominant players genetically engineer and mass produce seed alongside complementary inputs including fertilizers and pesticides, as we have seen with major field crop seed corporations selling corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and alfalfa.
The beginning of this transition can be traced to the 1930s, when a growing number of plant breeders and horticulturalists rediscovered techniques to breed hybrid varieties with desirable traits and develop markets around their exclusive seed. The increased demand for agricultural exports generated by World War II and with continued research breakthroughs led to the mass acceptance of hybridized seed, upon which farmers gradually became reliant.
Rising mechanization and research developments in sectors across the U.S. economy, parallel to those in the agriculture industry at the turn of the century, generated pressure for lawmakers to write and strengthen existing laws to protect the intellectual property of inventors. Though plants and seed were historically interpreted to be products of nature and thus, not patentable per existing patent law, the American Association of Nurserymen estimated that a potential one billion dollar market existed for the business and successfully lobbied the federal government to pass the Plant Patent Act of 1930. This became the first statute allowing biological materials to be patented, though this applied only to unique asexually reproducing plants.
Intellectual Property: Intellectual property is a broad categorical description for the set of intangible assets owned and legally protected by a company from outside use or implementation without consent. An intangible asset is a non-physical asset that a company owns.
Utility Patent: The right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling, or importing the invention. May be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.
Plant Patent: May be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.
For decades, USDA and Congress remained hesitant to extend patents to sexually reproducing plants. “In the 1930s, Congress saw the dangers and potential for patents on seed to lead to market concentration and less innovation,” Hubbard explained, and “all of those consequences have [since] played out.”
In the face of mounting pressure from burgeoning seed companies, Congress passed the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) in 1970. The compromise authorized USDA to grant certificates that afforded plant breeders the exclusive rights to produce and market sexually reproducing plant varieties that were distinct, stable, and uniform, provided that other researchers could still use the protected seed to breed improved varieties and that farmers could save seed to replant. Evidence suggests that in its first decade, the PVPA actually increased the number of distinct plant varieties available to farmers, but this arrangement did not last.
“Congress intended for the PVPA to govern protections of sexually-reproducing plants,” noted Hubbard, but subsequent Supreme Court decisions reshaped the debate around patenting life. The 1980 Supreme Court decision in Diamond v. Chakrabarty allowed newly engineered oil-eating bacteria to be patented, effectively signaling that inventors of any human-made microorganism could be granted utility patents – including plants. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was soon approving thousands of utility patent applications for plants that reproduce sexually. Importantly, where PVPA protections were explicitly designed to reinforce the rights of researchers and farmers to save protected seed, utility patent holders may forbid this.
The expansion of intellectual property protections in the 1980s occurred in tandem with the evisceration of antitrust policies and merger guidelines under the Reagan administration. These policy shifts laid the foundations for a “merger mania” in the 1980s and late 1990s, giving agribusiness corporations the ability to buy-out potential competitors or otherwise expand their services and markets unchallenged. This corporate-friendly landscape and the emergence of new biotechnologies enabled the Monsanto Company to pave the way for the takeover of the private seed industry, foreseeing a lucrative opportunity for expansion.
Monsanto, founded as a chemical company in 1901, became a pioneer in the production of agrochemicals in the mid-twentieth century. The company manufactured the insecticide DDT, which proved as critical to combating malaria-transmitting mosquito populations as it was to inspiring Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, and a renewed environmental movement. (Congress banned DDT in 1972 for its adverse impacts on human health and the environment.) Monsanto later produced and commercialized a new weed-killing herbicide, Roundup, in 1976. This success catalyzed the company’s pivot to biotechnology to genetically engineer an herbicide-resistant crop variety that would not be harmed by Roundup.
Biotechnology: Techniques to adapt plants for specific needs or opportunities using advanced biochemical, molecular, cellular, and genetic technology; inserting desirable traits into the genome of a living organism.
Genetically Engineered (GE): The artificial manipulation, modification, and recombination of DNA or other nucleic acid molecules to modify an organism using biotechnology.
To create and mass-produce a seed that would resist Roundup, Monsanto needed a captive supply of germplasm. “One of their main strategies,” noted Hubbard, “was to buy up smaller [seed] firms to access their varieties and simply insert their GE traits without needing to do any of the breeding work themselves.”
Monsanto thus began to acquire small and regionally based seed companies, exponentially multiplying their supply of germplasm and restricting the distribution of these varieties which had been carefully bred to possess ideal traits. These foundations enabled Monsanto to become the first company to genetically engineer a plant cell and eventually mass-produce a Roundup Ready line of seed. Early attempts to commercialize certain GE food products, including the infamous Flavr Savr tomato, failed in the face of consumer backlash. Yet those GE commodity crops that are mostly used in processed foods and as livestock feed quickly became integrated into the industrial food system.
Dr. Phil Howard’s visual of mergers and acquisitions in the seed industry from 1996 to 2018 reflects that the race for biotechnology corporations to possess germplasm and patents is not just still in progress, but heating up. Monsanto remained the world’s largest producer of GE seed until its $63 billion acquisition by Bayer, a German pharmaceutical and biotechnology company, in 2018. Today, Bayer alone is estimated to control the global markets for more than 35 percent of corn seed, 28 percent of soybean seed, and 70 percent of cottonseed.
What impacts does this consolidation have on farmers, ranchers, and rural communities?
Impact on farmers and communities
To many, the advent of the modern seed and biotechnology industry represents the pinnacle of benevolent ingenuity for our food system.
There are certainly conversations to have about the role genetically engineered crops play in increasing yields and boosting productivity of agricultural land per-acre through the reduction of crop loss. However, just as important but less present in mainstream conversations is a frank consideration about whether those gains can be justified given the adverse, long-term impacts that conventional farming has on people, animals, and the land.
When these conversations are better informed by the growing number of studies which point to the benefits of sustainable farming models, as well as its scaleable potential, we are compelled to ask: “Is the status quo worth defending?”
It could be, if the power imbalance between farmers, rural communities, and multinational corporations did not breed adverse consequences for the former. Recall that seed was once treated as public property and openly shared – not only in the 1800s, but for millennia on this continent by Indigenous people. In addition, integrated crop-livestock systems kept pests and weeds at bay while limiting soil disturbance to preserve the microbial community and prevent erosion, among other restorative benefits for soil health. No rising input costs or potentially dangerous chemicals were necessary, unlike today.
In 2019, U.S. farmers spent $118 billion to purchase seed and plants, fertilizers, animal feed, and agricultural chemicals. The cost of total farm input expenditures has increased almost $80 billion since 2009, a classic symptom of an industry that has become too concentrated. Bayer, Corteva, Limagrain, Chem-China, and BASF exclude competitors with control of at least 50 percent of the seed and agrochemicals markets by raising the price of inputs for farmers (including with a novel “technology fee”) without risking their own market dominance.
To strictly analyze the cost of seed, consider that corn farmers who paid $26.65 per planted acre of seed in 1990 paid $93.48 in 2019. This represents a dramatic increase of roughly 350 percent, beyond the rate of inflation, following the biotechnology merger-mania and the co-opting of the seed industry.
Health and human consequences compound this financial loss, with all such liabilities externalized by multinational corporations and placed upon farmers and consumers. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the active ingredient in Bayer’s Roundup, glyphosate, as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Farmers and farmworkers in proximity to glyphosate are potentially at-risk, as are consumers who consume GE food with glyphosate residue. Though glyphosate has since been banned or limited in dozens of countries, the Environmental Protection Agency re-approved Roundup to be used in the United States last year – even as lawsuits from 46,800 plaintiffs alleged personal injury from exposure to Bayer’s glyphosate-based products.
Bayer insisted that they would “defend the safety of glyphosate… vigorously.” Then, in February 2021 Bayer announced a $2 billion settlement to cover claims from individuals who developed cancer after being exposed to Roundup. This settlement, reached in private arbitration, is not an admission of guilt. Roundup not only remains on the market but is still the weedkiller favored by farmers. What else would conventional farmers use with their Roundup Ready seed?
Genetically engineered seed has indeed taken over. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that GE soybeans comprise a stunning 94 percent of all soybeans planted in the United States, GE cotton accounts for 94 percent of all cotton planted, and 92 percent of corn planted was GE corn. The multinational corporations that produce and market these GE seed varieties do not only place their products on the market but remove non-GE varieties of seed inherited from acquired seed companies. The result has been an alarming reduction in farmer choice – despite the illusion of many unique seed brands – as well as the decimation of crop biodiversity.
In 1983, a report by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA) revealed that the United States lost 93 percent of its agricultural genetic diversity in the twentieth century. That was before the consolidation of the seed and biotechnology industries in the mid-1990s, and nationally the trend has continued. This genetic uniformity poses a significant threat to the U.S. food supply. The more that the agriculture sector relies on a few uniform, patented seed varieties, the more susceptible these conventional farms become to epidemic pathogens or unexpected climate events. (We saw what happened during the Dust Bowl when traditional foodways were replaced with industrial, monocrop farming.)
Rather than elevating the long-term resilience and security of our food system, a 2019 AGree report notes that “the tendency for farmers to specialize production to only a few commodities presents risks in the event of any type of shock (e.g., extreme weather, disease or pest outbreaks, price cycles, market fluctuations, etc.).”
The corn problem
Let’s take a closer look at corn production to illustrate the vulnerabilities of monoculture systems and how they were shaped by corporate interests at farmers’ expense. With more than 90 million acres of land planted to corn – almost 30 percent of the country’s 320 million acres of harvested cropland – it is the United States’ leading crop commodity.
Do Americans eat that much corn on the cob? No! The demand to produce this much corn did not come from consumers, but was artificially generated by private agribusiness interests.
If you drive through the American corn belt, you will see the degree to which U.S. agriculture has become dependent on just two commodities: corn and soybeans. Defenders of the corn monoculture system point to the wide array of products which contain corn as an integral ingredient – from sweeteners and biofuels to animal feed – as proof of what must have been an inevitable climb to occupy this position of primacy. Yes, the United States meets the climate, soil, and topographic conditions necessary to mass-produce corn, but that does not mean that it always will or that we should.
Corn is a resource intensive crop to grow. It demands copious amounts of water and nitrogen, and industrial farming practices to plant and harvest corn are beginning to erode carbon-rich soil in the Corn Belt. Despite attempts to boost nitrogen levels in the soil with synthetic fertilizer (runoff from which poses an environmental concern), these products cannot completely replace natural minerals. In addition, genetic uniformity increasingly exposes farmers throughout the Heartland to elevated market and weather risks, including drought and emerging patterns of climate change. The United States cannot continue to produce and rely on corn to the extent that we do today – it is not resilient long-term.
Jonathan Foley warns in his piece, It’s Time to Rethink America’s Corn System, that “given enough time, most massive monocultures fail, often spectacularly… A single disaster, disease, pest, or economic downturn could cause a major disturbance in the corn system.”
In fact, corn farmers are already losing nearly $3 billion per year in harvest yields per acre. It is fortunate, then, that so much corn is not inherently necessary to the functioning of a society and may be replaced as an input by several alternatives. To illustrate, biofuels can be produced from less-intensive, even regenerative plants, including hemp and switchgrass. In addition, nearly 95 percent of processed animal feed is made of corn and may be replaced with broader adoption of integrated crop-livestock systems and pasture grazing.
Why, then, does the production of and dependence on corn continue to grow? Because farmers lose real income, not agribusiness, in the same way that farmers receive a decreasing share of every dollar spent on food in the United States while the share of biotechnology, equipment, and food processing corporations rises. This relationship is imbalanced at best and at worst parasitic, but always framed as symbiotic.
It’s a trap!
“Farmers lose when crop prices collapse, but buyers of those crops win.”
Wenonah Hauter, Foodopoly
To remain profitable, multinational agribusiness companies must generate and maintain a constant state, or at least a general trend, of overproduction and depressed commodity prices. Input suppliers, including biotechnology and seed corporations, can sell their patented products to a client (farmers) always seeking to expand their operations. Meanwhile, on the other end of harvest season, a concentrated number of food processors are able to purchase commodities for a price driven down by excess supply.
To illustrate the relationship, the following chart demonstrates that corn yields increased rapidly during the decades that these corporations amassed profit and influence – multiplying almost 600 percent since the mid-century dawn of the age of industrial agriculture and consolidation.
It is important to acknowledge that farmers may indeed experience lucrative years and rising commodity prices, often due to increased demand from international export markets. This is an exception, however; it is not a rule. While farmers win on occasion in this system, it is always as the industry collectively spirals downward.
Farmers who seek to permanently raise the price of commodities and otherwise elevate their share of the food dollar find themselves trapped. Realistically, corn farmers have few options to cut their input costs with an industry as consolidated as seed and biotechnology. They need to purchase the genetically engineered seed designed to withstand the herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizer which they have used for many growing seasons – but use of these chemicals and additional industrial practices, including mechanical tilling, erode soil nutrients until non-GE strands may no longer be able to maintain yields. The conventional farmer is not able to simply save and replant GE seed to save input costs either, for it is protected under utility patent law.
Similar to the biotechnology and seed industry, the farm equipment sector is highly consolidated. Four companies, chief among them John Deere, control at least 45 percent of global farm machinery sales. The farmer who decides to increase their yield to make up for lost income from falling prices may purchase new, productivity enhancing technologies from these companies. Because this decision is invariably made by thousands of farmers every planting season, with everyone reasonably aiming to stabilize their bottom line, a renewed downward pressure on prices is created. “The lower prices, in turn,” according to Darryl E. Ray in a 2003 University of Tennessee report, “become further incentives to adopt more cost-reducing technologies, and prices continue their slide.”
Unless farmers are able to adopt sustainable farming practices or radically alter their business models, they will continue to rely on these patented products year after year, sending half of the checks they write to increase the balance sheets of these corporations.
John Deere’s revenue growth consistently outperforms farm incomes, even as they rise and fall together. Large equipment manufacturers even use patents to prevent farmers from repairing their own heavy machinery (which is more damaging to soil health than previously thought) using independent repair technicians, or continuing to maintain equipment that is no longer supported by the manufacturer. This multiplies the profit streams for companies and perpetuates the need for farmers to continue to invest in the newest available equipment.
The imbalance does not stop there. In recent years, these industries have been acquiring data technology companies to create programs like Monsanto’s Climate View, now owned by Bayer. Farmers who participate in the program supply harvest field data through the sensors on combines manufactured by John Deere and AgCo, which together control 70 percent of the U.S. combine industry, and receive prescriptions sent back to the combine advising farmers which Bayer products to purchase to maximize their yields.
In his recent book, Perilous Bounty, Tom Philpott recounts an interview with an ex-Monsanto executive who “painted a future in which farmers would essentially outsource their decisions to Monsanto, or at least rely on the company to narrow their choices dramatically… This could empower farmers to make better decisions,” he continued, “but the farmers’ interests and the industry’s don’t necessarily align.”
Contrary to the vision of these corporate executives, basic economics instructs that limiting supply would cause commodity prices that farmers receive to rise. The industry, however, is unable to self-correct because no platform exists for all farmers – who are in competition with one another – to agree to cut production in a given year. Even if that scaled coordination were possible, farmers might be pressured to maintain or expand production to justify past investments in heavy machinery or other inputs, and to avoid furloughing staff and laborers. Further, the design of federal crop insurance and commodity programs currently incentivize the maintenance of conventional farming models and levels of production.
Federal crop insurance and commodity programs are designed to maximize yields, directly serving the interests of multinational agribusiness corporations who profit from maintaining a state of overproduction. These subsidies enable the biggest industrial operations to get bigger at the expense of smaller producers, as benefits are siphoned to a limited number of commodity crops and a relatively small number of farmers. The artificial absence of risk for these farmers, as well as bias against alternative operations from financial lending institutions, inhibits what motivation might otherwise exist to adopt diversified production systems as a risk management strategy.
That is why agribusiness lobbyists work to preserve federal support that reduces crop insurance premiums and prevents payment limitations to commodity subsidies. This arrangement maintains the incentive for farmers to overproduce, while also enabling these agribusinesses to signal that their relationship with farmers is indeed symbiotic, rather than parasitic. In reality, however, the public benefits of commodity programs are funneling potential resources away from farms and rural communities. Currently, any farmer or landowner – even multimillionaires and billionaires not actively engaged in farming – can receive unlimited premium subsidies.
As an added consequence, these programs have been fundamental to the acceleration of rural depopulation and the consolidation of farmland. This places small and mid-sized farms, or other low-resource, beginning, and BIPOC farmers, at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to buying land. According to a study by agricultural economists from Cornell University and the University of Illinois, crop insurance contributed to a four to nine percent increase in forage and rangeland values. Another study that looked only at the impacts of direct payments eliminated by the 2014 Farm Bill, found that those payments caused an increase of about $18 per acre in cropland value.
To demonstrate one facet of the impacts of farmland consolidation, 40 percent of farmland in the United States was rented from landowners in 2017. Farmers who do not own but only rent farmland are, sensibly, wary against sinking heavy investments into land which they may be asked to leave at the end of any contract period. This particularly affects small and mid-sized, BIPOC, and beginning farmers who do not have the resources to purchase land at inflated prices. This effectively traps the next generation of farmers and would-be innovators, limiting them to adhere to conventional and unsustainable practices supported by existing farm infrastructure, or only modest and transferable investments.
For more on farmland access issues, refer to the recent National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) report, Land Policy: Toward A More Equitable Farming Future, and this guest post authored by Holly Rippen-Butler, NYFC Land Access Program Director.
The trouble with opting out
Financial ruin generated by rising input costs and falling commodity prices (in addition to systemic discrimination against BIPOC producers within USDA) catalyzed the flight of farmers to cities in the twentieth century, particularly those farmers who did not industrialize. That said, a minority of farmers were able to resist the shift to conventional farming or later embraced sustainable production when its comparable, long-term benefits became clear.
Dave Bishop, 70, a mid-sized farmer in Illinois, endured heavy crop loss and debt caused by a severe drought in 1988. “It was traumatic,” he expressed, “to watch something die a little at a time for months and months and months.” Bishop was farming conventionally at the time, but that experience motivated him to deviate from the “get big or get out” mantra of the time – ”get different.” Bishop began to diversify his operations and eventually farm organically. “We dealt with opting out of the system,” he said. “That is possible for farmers to do.”
Farming organically to supply local and regional markets may indeed be considered an almost separate industry to monoculture farming, with its emphasis on sustainable farming practices, values, and markets. These farmers generally rely on a consumer base that is willing and able to spend a bit more than conventional market price for locally produced food that they know will be free of synthetic pesticides, promote greater animal welfare, and avoid GE seed that can trap farmers in unsustainable cycles. Many organic producers adopt techniques with ancient roots that center diversified systems, including crop rotation and the use of composted animal manure, to replace the need for synthetic inputs.
Research suggests that organic farmers save money on seed (which are not patented and can be saved from season to season), improve soil health, sequester more carbon, and harvest higher yields per acre than previously thought. These diversified farm systems may even be considered a natural form of risk mitigation, as opposed to crop insurance: “The next severe drought was in 2012,” Bishop recalled, “which turned out to be our most profitable year to date.”
Despite the proven resilience of this farming model, less than 0.8 percent of farms are certified as organic operations with USDA. Farmers must adhere to strict regulations related to soil quality, animal raising practices, and pest and weed control to become certified organic. In addition, the certification process is expensive and may not yield immediate financial benefit. The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) helps to alleviate the costs of certification for small and mid-sized organic farm businesses, although obstacles to certification remain.
While Bishop notes that “certifying our vegetable crops has little to no impact on local sales,” where consumers are able to build a relationship with their farmer, the label does “give us access to larger markets like Chicago where shoppers may not recognize the farm name.” That means these lucrative markets are more difficult to access for small organic farmers without the means to attain organic certification, or whose practices may deviate from the standards.
This demonstrates that existing farm policies place an outsized burden on small and mid-sized organic growers to grow, market, and sell their produce. Meanwhile, no comparable certification or market obstacles exist for conventional farmers – even though industrial agriculture is inherently riskier. Instead, monopsonist dynamics rooted in extreme concentration mean agribusiness corporations, including food processors, are the guaranteed buyers for overproduced and devalued commodity inputs. This difference reflects the dominance of agribusiness, which continues to shape the food system in ways that impede the success of even those farmers who choose to “opt out” of the industrial model.
The pervasive influence of agribusiness does not end there. Farmers who unknowingly come into the possession of patented traits in seeds they save due to cross-pollination with GE plants, may be sued by biotechnology multinational corporations for patent infringement. This is a serious threat, especially for organic farmers, who are required to assume risk and maintain buffer zones on their farms to prevent contamination. While farmers planting several GE crops are required to maintain buffer zones as well, these buffers do not completely prevent drift and contamination. To illustrate their ineffectiveness, the Union of Concerned Scientists found in a 2004 report that 50 percent of non-GE corn and soybean and 84 percent of non-GE canola seeds in the United States were contaminated with low GE residue.
Farmers cannot sue any biotechnology companies for the contamination of their fields, however; the Monsanto Protection Act exempts biotechnology companies from litigation in regard to the making, selling and distribution of GE seeds and plants. This midnight provision, or “biotech rider,” was included in a 2013 spending bill by agriculture biotechnology lobbyists.
In addition to influence over the federal policymaking process, these companies have infiltrated academia. In his 1986 book, Biotechnology: The University Industrial Complex, Martin Kennedy makes the case that the multimillion-dollar, multi-year contracts between private corporations and public universities popularized by biotechnology corporations erodes the integrity of academia. The practice of patenting and commercializing findings from publicly funded research was legalized by the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, and though it was theorized the Act would increase innovation it has instead led to diminished innovation and the privatization of public research.
The concept of industry-funded research should invite debate around potential conflict of interest, to determine if financial incentive may limit what research topics are considered or even influence conclusions. The Monsanto Papers, internal company documents released over a period of months in 2017, suggest that Monsanto actively avoided testing the real-world toxicity of their products, avoided funding studies which may have yielded unfavorable results, and “ghostwrote” studies attributed to independent scientists. That same year, a survey of researchers in the USDA revealed that up to five percent of scientists received pressure from either within the department or outside USDA to omit or alter findings based on “reasons other than technical merit.”
A new direction is possible
“Food can be weaponized,” said Jacqueline Pilati, founder of Reclaim Seed NYC, a BIPOC-led collective which supports urban growers throughout the city and stewards a free public seed library and seed garden in Queens. “We can nourish and celebrate, but we can also oppress people and limit the choices they have in terms of how they choose to feed themselves.”
Indeed, the consolidation of the biotechnology industry and its infiltration of the seed industry has led to heightened input costs and depressed commodity prices, trapping farmers in a cycle of dependence, and perpetuates a destructive model of farming which threatens biodiversity and soil health. Innovations in biotechnology, meanwhile, are narrowly applied to incentivize the creation of GE traits and affiliated agrochemicals to patent and sell, but it never had to be this way. These advances could have been, and may still represent, an unprecedented opportunity to guarantee universal human health and nourishment.
“We have a lot to learn from [plants],” Pilati mused. “They are abundant, they are generous, they are naturally promiscuous. Plants thrive, plants know that they must be genetically diverse and that their resilience lies in their diversity… What you see happening with seed patenting and consolidation is the opposite of that, but [the food system] needs to be that strong.”
NSAC and our members are driven to strengthen our food system in ways that mirror nature’s resilience through the broad adoption of conservation practices which promote biodiversity and soil health, support small, beginning, and socially-disadvantaged farmers, and promote fair markets and competition within the biotechnology and seed industries.
This will require additional investments in public, farmer-led, sustainable agriculture research, an alignment of conservation practices with crop insurance as proven risk mitigation tools, and antitrust and intellectual property rights reform, among other initiatives. More detailed recommendations and specific policy proposals to achieve these aims are forthcoming in a special report later this year.
In the meantime, the next installment of this series will explore consolidation and concentration within the livestock sector. Stay tuned!