The Genetically Modified Seed Monopoly

How biotechnology companies monopolize seed markets, escalate seed prices, and eliminate farmer choice

By KEN ROSEBORO | THE ORGANIC REPORT | FEBRUARY 18, 2013

This is the first of a 2-part series

The introduction of genetically modified crops has corresponded with increasing monopolization of seed by biotechnology companies and higher seed costs that have led to tragedies in some countries, while pushing out conventional, non-GMO seeds, and reducing farmer seed choices. These impacts are being seen in the United States, Brazil, India, the Philippines, and South Africa, and even Europe.

Seed monopoly

According to Philip Howard, a researcher at Michigan State University, economists say that when four firms control 40% of a market, it is no longer competitive. According to AgWeb, the “big four” biotech seed companies—Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred, Syngenta, and Dow AgroSciences—own 80% of the US corn market and 70% of the soybean business.

Monsanto has become the world’s largest seed company in less than 10 years by capturing markets for corn, soybean, cotton, and vegetable seeds, according to a report by the Farmer to Farmer Campaign. In addition to selling seeds, Monsanto licenses its genetically modified traits to other seed companies. As a result, more than 80% of US corn and more than 90% of soybeans planted each year contain Monsanto’s patented GM traits.

Other factors that have led to industry domination by a few players include purchase of smaller seed companies by larger companies, weak antitrust law enforcement, and Supreme Court decisions that allowed GM crops and other plant materials to be patented, while prohibiting seed saving by farmers.

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated Monsanto’s dominance of the seed market after holding public meetings in 2010 where farmers described the company’s practices. But at the end of 2012, DOJ announced it had “closed its investigation into possible anticompetitive practices in the seed industry.”

Diana Moss, vice president of the American Antitrust Institute, told Mother Jones food blogger Tom Philpott, “To have a two-year investigation and close it without a peep in our view does a disservice.”

Tamara Nelsen, senior director of commodities at the Illinois Agricultural Association, compares Monsanto to Microsoft, a company that was prosecuted by DOJ for anti-trust violations. “Ninety-three percent of soybean production is Roundup Ready,” Nelsen told Nature Biotechnology. “It’s still like everyone is on a Microsoft system—at least, that’s how farmers feel.”

Escalating GM seed prices

Another indication that the seed market has become monopolized is the escalating prices for GM seed. Moss points out that in competitive markets, technologies that enjoy widespread and rapid adoption—such as GM crops—typically experience steep declines in prices.

The opposite has occurred with GM crops. Charles Benbrook, research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University, writes that from 2000 to 2010 as GM soybeans came to dominate the market, the price for seed increased 230%. The cost for Monsanto’s Roundup Ready2 soybeans in 2010 was $70 per bag, a 143% increase in the price of GM seed since 2001.

According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, the average per-acre cost of soybean and corn seed increased 325% and 259%, respectively, between 1995 and 2011. This is roughly the time period when acreage of GM corn and soy grew from less than 20% to more than 80-90%

Moss says that the escalating prices for GM seeds are outstripping increases in grain prices earned by farmers, resulting in farmers being squeezed by higher costs with less returns.

“Destroying the lives of many farmers around the world”

Problems resulting from escalating prices for GM seed are seen most dramatically—and tragically—in developing countries. According to a study by Consumers International, an estimated 270,000 small-hold farmers in the Philippines are being forced to grow GM corn and ending up in debt. The cost of corn seeds has risen 282% from its introductory price and accounts for 18-21% of a farmer’s total cost of production. Farmers are at the mercy of seed suppliers and lenders who are one and the same in the country and refuse to provide lending unless the farmers grow GM corn.

The impacts of high GM seed prices are even worse in India where more than 250,000 peasant farmers have committed suicide since 1998, or about one every 30 minutes. Indian farmers grow GM Bt cotton, which accounts for 95% of all cotton acres in the country. According to a report by the New York Times, the seeds can cost between 700 to 2,000 rupees ($38) per bag or about three to eight times the cost of conventional seeds. Similar to the situation in the Philippines, Indian farmers go into debt to buy the expensive GM seeds and pesticides. If their crops fail, many farmers kill themselves by drinking pesticides.

The suicides began before the introduction of GM cotton, but GM cotton has exacerbated the problem, according to an advisory from the Indian government, which stated, “Cotton farmers are in a deep crisis since shifting to Bt cotton. The spate of farmer suicides in 2011–12 has been particularly severe among Bt cotton farmers.” A PBS documentary, “Seeds of Suicide,” has also implicated expensive GM seeds and pesticides in the indebtedness and resulting suicides.

According to John Vandermeer, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, genetically modified seeds are “destroying the lives of many farmers around the world right now.”

(Part two of this series next month will focus on restricted availability of non-GMO seeds and reduced farmer choices in the United States, Europe, Brazil, and South Africa)

References:

  • Philip Howard. “Visualizing Consolidation in the Global Seed Industry: 1996–2008.” Sustainability 2009, 1(4), pg. 1266-1287.
  • Sara Shafer. “Behind the Seed Scene.” AgWeb. July 28, 2012.
  • Kristina Hubbard, Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering. “Out of Hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry.” December 2009.
  • Tom Philpott. “DOJ Mysteriously Quits Monsanto Antitrust Investigation.” Mother Jones. December 1, 2012.
  • Charles Benbrook. “The Magnitude and Impacts of the Biotech and Organic Seed Price Premium.” December 2009.
  • Daniel Grushkin. “Threat to Global GM Soybean Access as Patent Nears Expiry.” Nature Biotechnology. January 2013, Vol 31: 10-11.
  • Vivekananda Nemana. “In India, GM Crops Come at a High Price.” New York Times. October 16, 2012.
  • Z. Haq. “Ministry Blames Bt Cotton for Farmer Suicides.” Hindustan Times. March 26, 2012.

Philippines Adopts ‘dictatorial’ Cyber crime Law

BANGKOK POST | OCTOBER 3, 2012

The Philippine government faced a barrage of protests on Wednesday as a cyber crime law went into effect that critics said had imposed dictator-style monitoring and policing of the Internet.

Major news outlets, bloggers, rights groups and other critics turned their social media profile pages black to express outrage over the law, which could see people face long jail terms for posting defamatory comments online.

Thousand of furious tweets were posted on Twitter, with the hashtag #notocybercrimelaw becoming the top trend on the microblogging site in the Philippines on Wednesday.

“This law works against ordinary netizens and disregards, among other things, our right to privacy and freedom of expression,” tweeted Noemi Dado, a prominent Manila blogger who edits a citizen media site called Blog Watch.

Senator Teofisto Guingona, one of the few members of parliament who opposed the bill that President Benigno Aquino signed into law last month, also stepped up his campaign to have it overturned.

“The implementation of the law… will take back our citizens to the Dark Ages where freedom of speech and expression were not recognised,” he said in a statement.

Many provisions of the cyber crime law aim to fight a range of online crimes not deemed controversial, such as fraud, identity theft, spamming and child pornography.

However one provision makes any libellous comments posted online a criminal offence, with a penalty of up to 12 years in jail, much tougher than for traditional media.

Equally controversially, the Department of Justice also now has the power to close down websites and monitor online activities, such as email, instant messaging or video chats, without a warrant.

The Philippines has had one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies and robust media environments since a people power revolution led by Aquino’s mother toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Social media has also flourished in recent years. Nearly a third of the population of 100 million people has access to the Internet, and 96 percent of Filipino web users use Facebook, according to industry figures.

But critics of the law have said it echoes tactics to silence and monitor dissenters employed by Marcos when he imposed martial law in the 1970s.

“The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 is the worst assault on free expression since Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law,” Luis Teodoro, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines, wrote in a blog.

Joaquin Bernas, a Jesuit priest and lawyer who helped draft the country’s post-dictatorship constitution in 1987, voiced similar sentiments in an article published this week outlining his concerns about the law.

“There are very valid reasons for being frightened by this,” Bernas wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, highlighting the government’s new authority to monitor and close down suspect websites without a warrant.

“I for one recall the law on search and seizure in effect during the past martial law period.”

Aquino’s spokespeople have repeatedly defended the law as necessary to fight cyber crime, while insisting his administration would uphold freedom of speech online.

They also said a spate of hacking on government websites in protest over the law highlighted the need for it.

But amid the backlash, some of the politicians who voted for the bill said they would were willing to get rid of the controversial provisions.

“At the end, we should be humble enough to admit we may have made a mistake and we can still amend the law,” said Congressman Sonny Angara, whose father, Senator Edgardo Angara, authored the cyber crime bill.

Critics have also filed petitions to the Supreme Court calling on it to rule that the law is unconstitutional.

U.S. and Philippines Stage War Games

REUTERS | APRIL 25, 2012

U.S. and Philippine commandos waded ashore on Wednesday in a mock assault to retake a small island in energy-rich waters disputed with China, part of a drill involving thousands of troops Beijing had said would raise the risk of armed conflict.

The exercises, part of annual U.S.-Philippine war games on the southwestern island of Palawan, coincide with another standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels near Scarborough Shoal in a different part of the South China Sea.

China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan across the South China Sea, each searching for gas and oil while building up their navies and military alliances.

China said last week the drill would raise the risk of confrontation. On Wednesday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said China was committed to dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the dispute.

“We are certainly worried about the South China Sea issue,” Cui told a news briefing in Beijing, saying “some people tried to mix two unrelated things, territorial sovereignty and freedom of navigation”.

The comments come before high-level talks with the Obama administration. China, which claims the South China Sea based on historical records, has sought to resolve disputes bilaterally but its neighbors worry over what some see as growing Chinese assertiveness in its claims in the region.

“Location (of the drill) is irrelevant,” Ensign Bryan Mitchell, spokesman for the U.S. Marines, told reporters.

“These exercises take place on a regular basis. This year it happens to be in Palawan. The planning for this took place months ago prior to any events that are currently in the headlines.”

U.S. President Barack Obama has sought to reassure regional allies that Washington would serve as a counterbalance to China in the South China Sea, part of his campaign to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy towards Asia after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Philippine military officials sought to play down the exercise. Lieutenant General Juancho Sabban, military commander for the western Philippines, said the drill “simply means we want to work together, improve our skills”.

Sabban’s area of command includes Reed Bank and the Spratlys, a group of 250 mostly uninhabitable islets spread over 427,350 sq km (165,000 sq miles) west of Palawan.

The Spratlys are claimed entirely by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

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