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Who’s minding the mergers?

World leaders have to bring sustainability and the public interest back to the table when it comes to policing corporate concentration in farming, says an Ontario scholar.

World leaders have to bring sustainability and the public interest back to the table when it comes to policing corporate concentration in farming, says an Ontario scholar.

About 200 Edmonton-area residents were at the University of Alberta Thursday to hear economist Jennifer Clapp deliver the 16th Annual Bentley Lecture in Sustainable Agriculture.

Clapp is the Canada Research Chair in global food security and sustainability at the University of Waterloo and author of several books on food policy.

Consolidation in the agricultural sector is a controversial topic and has accelerated in recent years, Clapp said. The “big six” of the agri-food sector (DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow Chemical, and BASF) already control 75 per cent of the pesticide market and 62 of the seed market, and they’re getting bigger – Dow and DuPont merged last year, and the European Union is expected to rule on the Bayer-Monsanto merger this year.

“It’s a big trend in the agri-food system. We are seeing more and more consolidation,” Clapp said.

That’s a concern, as, depending on who you ask, these mega-mergers are either the greatest threat to sustainable agriculture or our greatest chance to deal with rising populations and climate change.

But there’s no international agency looking over these mergers, and the national bodies that are don’t have the mandate to consider the public interest or the environment, Clapp said.

“Nobody knows who’s responsible for the question of sustainable agriculture.”

Big money, bigger crops?

Clapp said today’s mergers are driven in part by research costs as companies get into precision agriculture; the practice of using big data to use specific chemicals and seeds in specific places. Ultra-low interest rates have also given big agri-food companies the cash needed to finance profitable mergers to make up for losses from the post-2012 crash in crop prices.

Is this a good trend? That depends on whom you ask, Clapp said.

Big companies like Bayer point out that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is calling for a 50 to 60 per cent rise in food production by 2050, and say that this will lead to ecological catastrophe without new technologies – technologies they say will emerge from mergers.

But many NGOs argue that the world has a food distribution problem, not a production one, Clapp said. They argue that the tech-heavy monoculture approach of big companies harms biodiversity, worsens greenhouse gas emissions, and is too expensive for the 70 per cent of the world that lives off of small-scale farms. They also point to the problems caused by past innovations such as glyphosate, which has created herbicide-resistant weeds and has been deemed a possible carcinogen.

Clapp noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has also found that while mergers did result in lots of research and development prior to the 1990s, they have not done so in the last 15 years, as more recent mergers saw companies cut their research and development budgets to save money.

“You do have to wonder how much innovation is going to come out of it,” Clapp said.

Sturgeon County farmer Jenny Bocock was at Clapp’s talk and said she was concerned about the health impacts of the chemicals promoted by big agricultural companies.

“It really is a big concern to me that these mergers are going on, and I think we need to write to our MPs and people and express our concerns.”

Right now these two sides are talking past each other, as the agencies that actually police mergers do so purely based on economic measures, Clapp said.

She called on governments to create a public forum – perhaps through the G20 or the UN – to examine today’s mega-mergers in the context of sustainability and the public interest. She also called on them to re-invest in agricultural research and to think about the kinds of farms they want to have.

“The future of food security depends on it.”

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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