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Linda Wells

The Big 6 — bigger & badder

The public comment period for Dow's new genetically engineered, 2,4-D-resistant corn and soy closed yesterday. And despite comments from nearly 400,000 concerned individuals and farmers urging otherwise, USDA has signaled it will likely greenlight these new GE crops.

The comment period concluded on the eve of another historical date for the seed market. Four years ago today, the Department of Justice convened antitrust hearings to investigate consolidation of the seed market. There has been no follow through from these hearings, and we're still waiting for an explanation from the DOJ. In the meantime, corporations like Dow and Monsanto continue to consolidate control of global seed markets. Dow's new 2,4-D ready crops will be yet another driver of this consolidation.

While we wait to hear USDA's decision on 2,4-D crops, let's take a minute to reflect on the trajectory of the seed market and how farming has fared with just a few big companies at the helm.

Concentration is control

The Department of Justice (DOJ) began its antitrust investigation of the seed market for obvious reasons. As we've frequently written, the "Big 6" — the world's largest GE seed and pesticide companies — have steadily bought up smaller companies; they now control a lion's share of the market. By 2013, just three companies, Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta, controlled 53% of the global seed market. These giants also collaborate with each other through cross-licensing agreements and joint research projects. 

It is the job of the DOJ to investigate industry cartels and ensure they don't have a stranglehold on the market. As Tom Philpott describes it, this "market power" is:

…the might to manipulate markets to their own advantage, to the detriment of their customers, in this instance, farmers. It's only in cases of market power that the DOJ would take action.

In the case of seeds, there are concrete examples of how the Big 6 exercise market control. Steadily increasing prices for seeds, drastically decreasing access to diverse seed variety, and stagnated research and development for new technologies are all tell-tale signs of a seed cartel exercising "market power."

Unhappy customers

The antitrust hearings that took place in 2010 were both cautionary and inspirational. Farmers and other experts from all over the country came forward to testify about how the Big 6 consolidation of the seed market had negatively impacted their livelihoods.

Harvey Howington, a rice and soybean farmer from Kansas, highlighted the high cost of GE seeds and their failure to live up to promises:

"The products the companies are bringing to the marketplace are not the products needed to feed the world. They are all about company profits…Hundreds of farmers go broke every year, and rural America is drying up. Seed costs have skyrocketed."

And Todd Leak, who farmed wheat and soy on 2,000 acres in North Dakota, spoke to the problems with patenting seeds — and the lack of seed choice facing farmers:

“About a decade ago, I was free to choose from about a hundred different varieties of nongenome soybeans…  Today there's about 123 varieties of GMO soybeans that I have to choose from and about 12 non-GMO… The issue is that all of the research, all of the breeding, is going into proprietary genetically modified varieties of these. I am therefore forced as a farmer to have to go to the seed companies, these few seed companies that are left, to purchase my seed. So it's a combination of the utility patents and the consolidation of the seed industry which has entrapped me as a farmer into having to utilize the GMO seed varieties. And that is what I think is a problem.”

After hearing these testimonies and investigating the market, the Department of Justice decided to do… nothing. And they're keeping quiet about it. Without releasing a summary of their findings, the DOJ announced that they were not taking any enforcement action.

Speeding up the pesticide treadmill

Meanwhile, more and more farmers have been convinced or coerced into using Monsanto's copyrighted seed technology. And Monsanto continues its relentless marketing campaign, spouting promises of genetically-engineered progress: bigger yields, lowered pesticide use, and an end to world hunger. Nevermind that none of these promises have come true since GE crops were first commercialized over 16 years ago.

The most glaring of these broken promises is, of course, the claim that GE crops require less pesticide use. In fact, genetically engineered seed technology increased herbicide use by a whopping 383 million pounds in its first 13 years of use.

As we know, this boost in herbicide use has led to glyphosate-resistant "superweeds." And the Big 6 solution to this problem is more of the same, switching farmers to an even more intensive chemical regimen featuring Dow's 2,4-D corn and (also pending USDA approval) Monsanto's dicamba-resistant crops. Douse those superweeds with even more toxic, antiquated chemicals, right?

If the USDA approves Dow's 2,4-D-resistant seeds, they will take over the market just as RoundUp Ready has. And with these new seeds, 2,4-D usage is expected to increase by up to 600% by 2020 — likely leading to a new generation of superweeds.

On this fourth anniversary of investigations into market consolidation, the Big 6 are aiming to maintain "market power" and keep farmers running faster on the pesticide treadmill — using patented GE seeds that require use of ever more hazardous herbicides. Now, more than ever, we need policy solutions to disrupt Big 6 control and ensure farmers have access to diverse, affordable seeds and the effective tools they need to prosper. 

Photo credit: DorianGray/iStock

Picture of Linda Wells

Linda Wells

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