For most of history, farmers have had control over their seeds: saving, sharing, and replanting them with freedom. Developments in the course of the 20th century, however, have greatly eroded this autonomy. Legal changes, ranging from the Plant Variety Protection Act (1970) in the United States to the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), have systematically eroded farmers’ rights to save seeds for future use. By the end of 2012, Monsanto had sued 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in the United States for patent infringement, winning over $23 million in settlements. Here, we describe some of the key developments further intensifying corporate control over the food system. It is not, however, all bleak news. Civil society groups are using everything from grassroots protest to open-source licensing to ensure that the enclosure and privatization of seeds comes to an end.
Corporations Have Consolidated Their Control of Seeds and Agrochemicals
In 2011, just four transnational agri-businesses—Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer, Syngenta, and Vilmorin (Groupe Limagrain)—controlled 58% of the commercial seed market. Four—Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, BASF, and Dow AgroSciences—controlled 62% of agrochemicals worldwide. The top six companies controlled 75% of all private plant breeding research, 60% of commercial seed sales, and 76% of the global agrochemical market. This consolidation of power has been aided by a large string of mergers and acquisitions, leading the Canada-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) to conclude that “there just aren’t many seed companies left to buy.”
The World Bank, too, has played a role in this increased consolidation. In 2014, a report from the Oakland Institute provided details on the World Bank’s efforts to open African markets to private seed companies. (Full disclosure: The authors of this article both work at the Oakland Institute.) The report, titled “The World Bank’s Bad Business with Seed and Fertilizer in African Agriculture,” paints a stark picture of the possible consequences of these actions: removing farmers’ rights to save seeds and implementing intellectual property claims over seeds does not improve food security, but rather undermines farmers’ autonomy and further increases profits for the existing seed oligopoly.