M&A Africa: Pending Global Seed Monopolies Could Threaten Small-Scale African Farmers

M&A Africa: Pending Global Seed Monopolies Could Threaten Small-Scale African Farmers

Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming the battleground of the world’s giant seed companies, which are in the process of negotiating a series of corporate consolidations that could leave almost 60 percent of the world’s seeds in the control of three firms, according to a report in The Guardian.

Until recently, six or seven global agri-food businesses have competed for a share of the world seed and chemical market. But if U.S. and E.U. regulators allow a series of mega-mergers to take place, within months just three companies will control almost 70 percent of the chemicals and pesticides needed to grow food and most of the world’s genetically modified crop genetic traits.

When African farmers add chemicals to their fields, chances are the chemicals came from massive Swiss seed and gene group Syngenta, according to The Guardian.

U.S. seed, chemical and biotech company Monsanto already controls much of the high-breed maize seed market in Southern Africa and parts of West Africa, said Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity in South Africa, in a DW interview.

The mega-deals now being examined by governments and the E.U. include ChemChina’s plan to buy Syngenta for $43 billion; German gene firm Bayer’s $66 billion agreed takeover of Monsanto; and U.S. chemical company Dow’s plan to merge with rival chemical conglomerate DuPont.

Global environmental and anti-trust groups say the three mega deals could stifle competition, force food and farm input prices to rise, and exclude small farmers.

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The mergers will put seeds, chemicals, research and lobbying power in the hands of a tiny group of immensely powerful companies, they say.

A Bayer-Monsanto merger could result in the world’s largest agribusiness, Mayet said. DW reported. The merger could have negative impact on both farmers and consumers in Africa.

“In Africa, bringing together the seed and agrochemicals industry will result in a bigger push for African governments to deploy GM (genetically modified) technology and the greater use of agrochemicals in African agriculture, particularly with maize, soya bean and cotton,” Mayet said.

Consolidation means that the big three corporations will be in a position to access massive amounts of genetic data, seen as crucial to companies in places like sub-Saharan Africa with food shortages and fast-growing populations, The Guardian reported:

“The mergers will enable pharmaceutical and agriculture companies to become big data companies,” says Catherine Wood, CEO of Ark investment management. “When you sequence a human genome, or a seed, what you get out of it is data.”

Olivier De Schutter, former UN special rapporteur on the right to food and a co-chair of Ipes, says the mergers will make developing countries a more attractive target for corporate farming.

“The frontier of industrial agriculture is moving towards sub-Saharan Africa. There is a huge market there which the seed companies (say) will grow very significant in the next few years.

“They will be in a position to dominate this market. Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming the battleground of the giants,” says De Schutter.

Monsanto’s track record in Africa

Monsanto has a tainted record in Africa and a poor public relations image because of the way they dismissed consumer concerns related to BT Cotton, Monsanto’s cotton, in Burkina Faso, Mayet said. “They are very much hated by consumers and environmentalist across the world. I think that Bayer will want to distance itself from that image but not the product. It’s possible that they may give the seed and agriculture chemical component of this conglomerate a new name and a new branding.”

For small-scale farmers who are predominant in sub-Saharan Africa and operate at a low profit margin, greater consolidation means less choice for them — and consumers, Mayet said.

“Anti-competition regulators should block these mergers everywhere, and particularly in the emerging markets of the global south, as the new mega companies will greatly expand their power and outcompete national enterprises (there),” said Pat Mooney, director of ETC, a group which monitors global agribusiness and agricultural technologies, according to The Guardian.

The mergers are all about wanting to manage big data, DNA, and intellectual property, Mooney said.

“These deals are not just about seeds and pesticides … Dominance may go to the biggest companies best able to manage the data and the DNA to their own advantage,” he said.

Concerns over the proposed mega mergers are expected to be voiced when the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s committee on world food security meets in October in Rome.

Stopping the mergers isn’t just something regulators can effect. “Powerful farm movements in many developing countries frightened by the immense power that the corporates will wield, plan to take their concerns to the U.N. and international meetings in Indonesia, Mexico and elsewhere over the next few months,” The Guardian reported.

Regulations will not be something African governments pay a lot of attention to, Mayet told DW. African needs to find their own indigenous solutions to their agribusiness problems, she said. “Looking outwards for external inputs will further impoverish Africa and marginalize small-scale farmers. It will also undermine Africa’s raw genetic diversity and the strong systems that farmers have built to increase diversity and nutrition security.”

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa plans to invest $500 million over five years to help African agricultural companies and governments produce seeds, Bloomberg reported, according to Ag Web.

AGRA was founded in 2006 through a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. It has already invested $100 million in seed companies since 2006, said Joseph DeVries, its chief of agricultural transformation. AGRA will start using the additional funds in January, DeVries said, according to Bloomberg:

The Pioneer unit of DuPont Co., the biggest supplier of hybrid corn seeds in Africa, hopes to expand its partnership with governments on the continent and aid groups to Tanzania after setting up programs for farmers to use its seed in Ethiopia and Zambia, it said last month.

“We are growing into professionalizing agriculture by providing fertilizer, storage facilities and markets,” DeVries said. “We expect the 11 of the countries we are working in to be food-secure in the next 10 years. It is not rocket science — you grow a new variety of grain, put it in a bag and sell it.”