The increasing conversion of agriculture into a commodity industry is an undeniable reality today. The privatization of natural resources, the policies of structural adjustment, the gradual disappearance of the peasantry and the industrialization of food systems have driven us to the current food crisis situation.
In this context, who is deciding what we eat? The answer is clear: a handful of multinationals of the agro-food industry, with the blessing of governments and international institutions, end up imposing their private interest above collective needs. Due to this situation, our food security is seriously threatened.
The supposed concern of governments and institutions such as the G8, the G20, the World Trade Organization, etc., regarding the rise of the price of basic food and its impact on the more disadvantaged peoples, as they showed in the course of 2008 in international summits, has only shown their deep hypocrisy. They take significant economic profits from the current food and agricultural model, using it as an imperialist instrument for political, economic and social control, towards the countries of the global South.
As pointed out by the international movement of La Vía Campesina, at the end of the FAO meeting in Rome in November 2009: “The absence of the heads of state of the G8 countries has been one of the key causes of the dismal failure of this summit. Concrete measures were not taken to eradicate hunger, to stop the speculation on food or to hold back the expansion of agrofuels”.
The agro-food chain is subjected, in its whole route, to a high business concentration. Starting with the first stretch, seeds, we can observe that ten of the biggest companies (such as Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Bayer…), according to data from the ETC Group, control one half of sales. Copyright laws, which give exclusive rights on seeds to these companies, have further stimulated the business concentration of the sector and have eroded the peasant right to the maintenance of indigenous seeds and biodiversity.
The seed industry is intimately linked to that of pesticides. The biggest seed companies also dominate this other sector and very frequently the development and marketing of both products are done together. Moreover, in the pesticide industry, the monopoly is even greater and the ten biggest multinationals control 84% of the global market. This same dynamic is observed in the sector of food distribution and in that of the processing of drinks and foods. It is all about strategy, and it is bound to increase.
Big-scale retailing, just like other sectors, registers a high business concentration. This monopoly and concentration enables them to wield huge power to determine what we buy, the price of products, their origin, and how they have been elaborated.
Making a profit from hunger
In the midst of the food crisis, the main multinational companies of the agro-food industry announced record profit figures. Monsanto and Dupont, the main seed companies, declared a rise of their profits of 44% and 19% respectively in 2007 in relation to the previous year. The data of fertilizer companies pointed out the same: Potash Corp, Yara and Sinochem, saw their profits rise by 72%, 44% and 95% respectively between 2007 and 2006. Food processors such as Nestlé also experienced a rise of their economic gains, as well as supermarkets such as Tesco, Carrefour and Wal-Mart, while millions of people in the world did not have access to food.
- Esther Vivas is a member of the Centre for Studies on Social Movements (CEMS) at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.
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