The intentional blurring in the difference between farmers and global chemical and biotech corporations demands some clarity, says the author. (Photo: Public domain)
By: Andrea Brower
We are witnessing a strange, though remarkably predictable public discourse, where State lawmakers claim that those “truly serious about supporting local farmers” must abolish Counties’ rights “forever,” and transnational corporations call themselves “farmers.” Legislators attempt to contort the “Right to Farm” into a mechanism for chemical companies to evade health and environmental concerns, as water grabs by these same companies undermine the actual rights of farmers. Meanwhile, the Hawaii Farm Bureau advocates the interests of a few mega-corporations as synonymous with the interests of local farmers (despite never having asked the farmer members that they professedly speak for).
The intentional blurring in the difference between farmers, and the global corporations that use Hawaii as a testing ground for their new technologies, demands some clarity.
Dow is the largest chemical company in the US. Their list of manufactured goods includes napalm, chlorpyrifos (used as a nerve gas during World War II), plastics and Styrofoam. They have managed nuclear weapons facilities, and more recently diversified into the coal business. Dow has refused compensation or environmental cleanup for the over half a million victims of the Bhopal pesticide plant disaster. They have been charged by the EPA for withholding reports of over 250 chlorpyrifos poisoning incidents, and only upon recent government mandate began to address their century-long legacy of dumping dioxins into Michigan’s waterways. They have knowingly allowed their pesticide product DBCP to cause permanent sterility in thousands of farm-workers.
DuPont started as a gunpowder and explosives company, providing half of the gunpowder used by Union armies during the Civil War and 40% of all explosives used by Allied forces in World War I. During peacetime, DuPont diversified into chemicals; some well-known products include Nylon, Teflon and Lycra. World War II was particularly advantageous for DuPont, which produced 4.5 billion pounds of explosives, developed weapons, contributed to the Manhattan Project, and was the principal maker of plutonium. Along with Dow, DuPont was rated in the top five air polluters for 2013 by the Political Economy Research Institute. DuPont is responsible for 20 Superfund sites, and is recipient of the EPA’s largest civil administrative penalty for failing to comply with federal law.
Syngenta was formed through the merging of pharmaceutical giants Novartis and AstraZeneca’s agrochemical lines. They manufacture highly dangerous pesticides like paraquat and atrazine that are banned in their home country of Switzerland, but used largely in poorer countries (as well as Hawaii). Paraquat is a major suicide agent. Syngenta has lobbied exhaustively in the European Union to block a ban on its bee-killing neonicotinoids, including threatening to sue individual EU officials. It has hired private militias to murder farmer activists. Syngenta is responsible for 18 Superfund sites in the US.
BASF is the world’s largest chemical company, and makes plastics, coatings (automotive and coil coatings), fine chemicals (feed supplements, raw materials for pharmaceuticals), and agricultural chemicals. During World War II it was part of IG Farben, dubbed the “financial core of the Hitler regime,” and the primary supplier of the chemicals that were used in Nazi extermination camps. For nearly three decades following the war, BASF filled its highest position with former members of the Nazi regime. Five of BASF’s manufacturing facilities in the US rank amongst the worst 10% of comparable facilities for toxic releases. In 2001 they were fined by the EPA for 673 violations related to illegal importation and sale of millions of pounds of pesticides.
Monsanto was founded as a drug company, and its first product was saccharin for Coca-Cola — a derivative of coal tar that was later linked to bladder cancer. They have manufactured some of the world’s most destructive chemicals, including Agent Orange (with Dow), PCBs and DDT. Monsanto was heavily involved in the creation of the first nuclear bomb and in 1967 entered into a joint venture with IG Farben. Monsanto is a pioneer of biotechnology; their first product was artificial recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). They have sued food companies that have labeled their products as rBGH-free. They are a potentially responsible party for at least 93 Superfund sites.
Clearly these corporations are not “farmers.” But what, then, of their impact on farmers?
The task of a corporation is to aggressively and competitively use their capital to make more of it. In addition to financial benefit in weapons, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and plastics, the aforementioned corporations now fatten their earnings in our agri-food system. Most notably, when court decisions in the 1980s opened the door to exclusive property rights on seeds and other life forms, they turned their eye to the profitability of dominating the agricultural inputs market.
Consolidation and concentration in the seed industry has been rapid — in 1995 the world’s top 10 seed companies controlled 37% of commercial seed sales; today 10 companies account for 73%. Through mergers and acquisitions, the stockpiling of patents on genes and traits, and unprecedented cooperation and collusion, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, Monsanto, BASF and Bayer — the “Big 6” — have rendered competitive markets in seeds, biotech traits and agrochemicals “a relic of the past.” Together, these markets provide them $50 billion per annum in sales. Since they took ownership of the market, seed prices for US farmers have more than doubled as their options have narrowed.
Beyond controlling the market, the agrochemical / seed oligopoly also largely determines the worldwide agricultural research agenda, accounting for over three-quarters of private sector R&D in seeds and pesticides. Public sector research is marginalized and distorted by the dominance of their funding, and their gene monopolies severely thwart critical scientific inquiry and innovation. Farmers’ rights to innovate, share and save seed, and cultivate the agricultural biodiversity upon which we all depend is also supplanted by the new corporate rights to privatize what has always been considered “common.”
The R&D that the Big 6 choose to invest in, and take our agri-food system in the direction of, reflects their single structural mandate — to grow profits for their shareholders. Thus, as their initial pesticide+GMO combo technologies fail, they move to speed-up the pesticide-treadmill with crops engineered to withstand heavy dousing in more toxic 2,4-D and dicamba.
Seventy percent of Big 6 research funding is dedicated to biotech, which after nearly 20 years of commercialization has been “inefficient and expensive” for developing anything besides herbicide-resistant and insecticide-producing commodity crops that are processed into unrecognizable form. Corn and soy production now covers over half of US farmland, thanks largely to the policy-influence of the agrochemical corporations and other mega-agribusiness. Seeds (with pesticides) by DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dow account for more than 80 percent of corn acreage and 70 percent of soy acreage. American commodity farming today is a “zero long-run profitability” endeavor for farmers, but it is incredibly lucrative for the Big 6, grain traders and makers of processed foods.
Many of the “externalities” of a corporate-enriching food system are paid for by farmers. According to a report by Food and Water Watch, herbicide-resistant weeds created by Big 6 technology can cost farmers as much as $12,000 for an average-sized corn or soybean farm or $28,000 for an average cotton farm. In other words, as pesticide+GMO combos fail, the agrochemical companies that produce them benefit from selling more chemicals. Additionally, farmers increasingly face loss of crops and livelihoods due to pesticide-drift and death of honeybee populations.
Farming communities also suffer the most severe health impacts of an increasingly pesticide-intensive agricultural system. Exposure to pesticides is associated with elevated risks of certain kinds of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, autism and other neurological effects, reproductive and developmental disorders, and respiratory disease. Farmworkers’ children are at particularly high risk of exposure and pesticide-related illness.
Most generally, the continued success of these corporations lies in the entrenchment of an industrial-style, pesticide and fossil-fuel intensive agri-food system in which our genetic commons are privatized and farmers’ choices are reduced to Big 6-seeds and chemicals. They will morph to adapt to changing circumstances — the industry is working to secure patents on conventional breeding, companies are shifting to crossbreeding in areas where GMO technology has failed, Monsanto has diversified into big data and weather insurance, and the Big 6 are sweeping-up genes related to environmental stress to secure their dollar in climate change. But one thing will remain constant — their sole mission to grow their wealth (and power), which has not been a benign process for farmers.
Whether one is skeptical, hopeful, or a mix of both about the science and technology of genetic engineering, we must differentiate between what is good for Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF and Bayer, and what is good for farmers and farmworkers. As we debate various policies related to the agrochemical corporations’ experimentation in Hawaii, we do a grave disservice to the future of food and farming locally and globally when we allow the relationship between farmers and mega-agribusiness to be obscured.
Andrea Brower is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Auckland. She has been very active in alternative food and global social justice movements, and spent several years co-directing the non-profit Malama Kauai in Hawaii, where she is originally from. more Andrea Brower
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