A report published at the end of 2022 by The ETC Group reveals how a handful of corporations with the help of Big Tech are taking over the world’s food supply.
The report, titled ‘Food Barons 2022 – Crisis Profiteering, Digitalization and Shifting Power’, offers a snapshot of the world’s “Food Barons” – the biggest players up and down the industrial food and agriculture chain. It examines the leading corporations that control each of 11 key industrial agrifood sectors: seeds, agrochemicals, livestock genetics, synthetic fertilizers, farm machinery, animal pharmaceuticals, commodity traders, food processors, Big Meat, grocery retail and food delivery.
The findings show that many agrifood sectors are now so “top-heavy” they are controlled by just four to six dominant firms, enabling these companies to wield enormous influence over markets, agricultural research and policy development, which undermines food sovereignty.
Unfortunately, the report pays lip service to the World Economic Forum/United Nations’ false climate change narrative and it also favours racial justice. What exactly is meant by “racial justice” is unclear. If it is a show of solidarity with the “social justice warriors” of the neo-Marxist Critical Race Theory – the dominant ideology behind the Black Lives Matter social movement – this is again unfortunate. However, a misguided belief in these ideologies has not affected the essence and integrity of the report even though the authors cite an understanding of the relationship between the two as part of the basis of the report:
The analysis in this report is based on understanding the relationship between racial justice and climate change and how extractive agriculture disproportionately impacts people of colour and Indigenous communities. [emphasis our own]Food Barons 2022, ETC Group, September 2022, pg. 5
The report is a comprehensive review packed with important qualitative and quantitative information such as the digitalisation of agriculture and tables showing the dominant corporations in each agrifood sector. We briefly highlight these below.
The report also details important and often overlooked topics such as:
- Post-Patent & Generics Drive Pesticide Proliferation (pg. 8);
- New Techno-Fixes: 1) Gene Editing; 2) RNA Pesticide Sprays (pg. 27); and,
- The (bio)digital takeover of food and agriculture (pg. 130).
We don’t go into these sections of the report here but they are a must-read for anyone who feels the use of these technologies is in any way beneficial.
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The Digitalisation of Agriculture
Health Impact News used the Food Barons report in an article to highlight Big Tech’s plan to take over the food supply. “Everything and anything related to digital computer technology these days are being labelled as Artificial Intelligence (“AI”), the new marketing buzzword for Big Tech to lure money from investors, so it should not surprise us that Big Tech is now attempting to apply AI to food production,” Health Impact News wrote and includes some extracts from the Food Barons report:
Power Up: Techno-fixes to lock in corporate control
The Food Barons are introducing a suite of new technologies and “techno-fixes” that are conceived and designed to entrench corporate control over food and agriculture even further.
“Techno-fix” refers to the development of a technology product or intervention to address a social or environmental problem – often a problem created by an earlier technological failure.
Up and down the industrial food chain, the digitalisation of food and agriculture emerges as the new techno-fix of the day. Our ongoing research reveals that every sector of the Industrial Food Chain is in the process of transforming into a digital enterprise. At the same time, Big Tech is becoming tightly entangled with industrial food production. Data extracted via digital technologies is now itself a commodity: The Industrial Food Chain relies on Big Data to grow, process, trade, track, sell and transport its products.
Digitalising food and agriculture from farm to front door
The vista of new digital initiatives in food and ag is dizzying.
On the farm, it includes concerted attempts to impose digital agriculture, weaving in drone sprayers, Artificial Intelligence-driven robotic planters and automated animal-feeding operations tricked out with facial recognition for livestock.
Big Ag giants such as Bayer, Deere & Company, Corteva, Syngenta and Nutrien are restructuring their entire businesses around Big Data platforms.
Bayer’s ‘Field View’ digital platform, for example, extracts 87.5 billion data points from 180 million acres (78.2 million hectares) of farmland in 23 countries and funnels it into the cloud servers of Microsoft and Amazon.
Deere, the world’s largest farm machinery company, now employs more software engineers than mechanical engineers.
On the route to retail, the global grain trading system is getting a digital overhaul as it becomes increasingly automated and products are tracked via blockchain. At the same time, online grocery platforms and food delivery apps (such as DoorDash, Zomato and Deliveroo) surged during pandemic lockdowns and are growing into a whole new ‘last mile’/ last link of the Industrial Food Chain.Food Barons 2022, ETC Group, September 2022, pg. 9
As the ETC report so eloquently states, here is the “dream farm” of the Technocrats. It is a “farm of one” where technology does all the work and rakes in the profits:
Every leading agrochemical company offers its own digital ag platform marketed to farmers as a way to transform on-farm data into savings that will ultimately increase farm profitability.
The Holy Grail, they say, is a “farm of one,” where a single farmer/data manager (equipped with many thumbs, perhaps?) can log on to a connected device, watch as the algorithms calculate input prescriptions – based on data collected from in-field sensors and hyperspectral imaging – and then send those prescriptions to a fleet of contracted drones that will dump herbicide, fungicide, fertilizer, growth regulator or other input in a just-right dosage for each plant growing in the field.
Post-harvest, the farmer can supposedly sit back and enjoy the profits from increased crop sales and reduced labour costs – as well as from payments for ‘carbon sequestration’ verified by traceability data collected and stored on a blockchain.Food Barons 2022, ETC Group, September 2022, pg. 22
With Big Tech’s encroachment into agriculture, we have now moved from Is this food safe to eat? to Is this even “food” and is it edible?
As the ETC report reveals, as consolidated Big Food was before covid, they used covid to consolidate even more, so that today just a few corporations control most of the world’s food. “Data,” supplied by Big Tech and their AI, is what allows this tremendous consolidation of power.
Read Health Impact News’ full article HERE.
Corporations That Control the World’s Food Supply
When you go from 15 to 10 companies, not much changes…When you go from 10 to six, a lot changes. But when you go from six to four – it’s a fix.
Those who have market power can raise prices above what’s considered fair market value…We’re at a point in our market concentrations that we haven’t seen ever before.Food Barons 2022, ETC Group, September 2022, pg. 8
Asset Management Corporations
Before listing the dominant actors in each agrifood sector, the report begins by showing the shareholders of some of those corporations.
Recent decades have seen a massive increase in land grabbing and venture capital speculation in food and agriculture assets worldwide, with the latter trend exemplifying the “financialisation” of the Industrial Food Chain. In this way, the driving purpose of food systems moves ever further away from feeding people to feeding profits. More recently private equity and asset management firms are flocking to global food and agribusiness. At the close of 2020, the private equity industry managed more than US$7.5 trillion in capital, with increasing influence over the levers of corporate power in food and agriculture. For example, just three of the world’s largest asset management firms collectively control more than one-quarter of all institutional shares of some leading agribusiness corporations.
Agrochemicals and Pesticides
In the wake of recent mega-mergers, at least five of the leading pesticide companies also dominate the world market for commercial seeds and traits. The pesticide and seed sectors became inextricably linked with the commercialisation of molecular biotechnologies in the mid-1990s (e.g., herbicide-tolerant genetically modified plants). Today they are being further linked by Big Data strategies.
Despite the astonishing level of corporate concentration in the global commercial seed sector, the vast majority of the world’s farmers are self-provisioning in seeds, and farmer-controlled seed networks still account for an estimated 80-90% of seeds and planting material globally. Over the past 40 years, the world’s largest agrochemical firms have used intellectual property laws, mergers and acquisitions and new technologies to take control of the commercial seed sector. Today, pesticides and commercial seeds are no longer distinct links in the industrial food chain. However, ETC Group continues to provide corporate rankings and market share for seeds and agrochemicals as separate sectors. The ‘pure-play’ seed company (that is, a company that focuses primarily on seeds) is a rarity among the leading companies.
The global fertilizer industry is fragmented; however, it has historically operated in export cartels organised by fertilizer type (sometimes government-sanctioned and involving state-owned companies). State ownership/investment in fertilizer production and trade is still common. Many fertilizer companies are expanding offerings to include so-called speciality fertilizers (e.g., containing micro-nutrients and/or microbe-based formulations) and digital agriculture.
Livestock Breeding and Genetics
The industry typically selects for genetic traits to maximize production (i.e., rapid growth and high yields) and to facilitate the production, processing and transport of uniform animal protein products on a massive scale. Industrial breeds can’t survive without high-protein feeds, expensive medications and climate-controlled housing.
Machinery for Big Ag
Today, the world’s largest farm equipment companies are gearing up to control digital ag technologies and farm data as their number one strategy for expanding market share. Digitalised agriculture implies other machinery used down on the farm – drones, sensors and devices that run apps, for example – as well as internet connectivity.
The animal pharmaceutical industry (also known as the animal health industry) sells commercial products for livestock productivity/health and companion animal (pet) health, including medicines and vaccines, diagnostics, medical devices, nutritional supplements, veterinary and other related services. This sector does not include livestock feed and pet food products (although in some cases it may include medicated feed additives).
Agricultural Commodity Trading
The colossal firms that control global commodity trading are among the most powerful and least-transparent companies in the industrial food chain. The total value of global agricultural commodity markets is difficult to estimate because much of the information is proprietary and supply chains are opaque: three of the world’s top-ranking ag commodity traders are privately held, and one is state-owned.
Big Meat and Protein
The corporate meatpacking industry involves the slaughtering, processing, packaging and distribution of animal protein from livestock. Increasingly, the industrial meat sector is also linked to the production of “alternative proteins” – i.e., high-protein foods processed from plants, insects, fungi, or via cell-culture or fermentation (synthetic biology) techniques – aimed at replacing or co-existing with conventional animal and fish-based proteins on the market.
Food and Beverage Processing
The food and beverage industry focuses on the post-harvest processing of raw agricultural commodities into consumer products – both foodstuffs and feedstuffs for human and animal consumption.
The world’s largest grocery retailers sell both non-food products (“non-edible grocery”) and food. According to retail industry analyst Edge by Ascential, worldwide consumer spending on retail food & beverage totalled $8,271 billion (US$8.3 trillion) in 2020.
The Food Delivery sector refers to digital, on-demand platforms for ordering and paying for prepared food and, increasingly, groceries and other retail items. Restaurants/retailers fill the orders and couriers deliver them to customers within a prescribed timeframe.
Selected Extracts from the Report
The following extracts from The ETC Group’s report are self-explanatory and so require no additional comment.
Today, amid ever-increasing corporate concentration and anaemic antitrust regulation, some of the world’s largest companies are using pandemic-induced supply chain gridlock and inflation as an excuse to jack up prices: a practice known as “crisis profiteering.”Food Barons 2022, ETC Group, September 2022, pg. 6
Power Play: Spinning false narratives
To sustain their market dominance, the Industrial Food Chain’s big players actively work to deflect attention from their power grabs by promoting a distorted picture of global food and agricultural systems. This was evident at the UN’s controversial 2021 Food Systems Summit, where Big Food executives and their trade groups wrung their hands over a food system ‘broken’ by climate change and pandemic; then they assured us they were the only ones who could fix it, with a ready-made agenda for “food system transformation”
Big Food consistently seeks to undermine the fact that the world’s three billion indigenous and peasant producers – rural and urban, fishers and pastoralists – not only feed a majority of the world’s people and most of the world’s malnourished but that they also create and conserve most of the world’s biodiversity making indigenous and peasant producers humanity’s best defence against climate change.Food Barons 2022, ETC Group, September 2022, pg. 8
We find that the Food Barons – including giant traders, food processors, grocers, technologists and financiers – are continuing to (re)design and refine the Industrial Food Chain so that they can control it ever more effectively and leach ever more value away from producers and the natural environment. They are swelling their own coffers, whilst providing poor quality and mostly unhealthy food to people and animals, destroying soils and biodiversity along the way.
Today’s Industrial Food Chain enables the world’s biggest Food Barons to hold more economic power than the world’s 3.6 billion farm families, fishers and producers put together. This is deeply inefficient, perverse and extractive.
Our report also points to three developing multi-sectoral critical trends that are enabling increased control along the Industrial Food Chain by Big Ag, Big Data and Big Finance.
- New technologies are enabling the Food Barons to further consolidate their wealth and control, especially via the digitalisation of agriculture: they are busily promoting digitally-based and genetic technologies and schemes, including as planet-saving techno-fixes, to maximise investment.
- We observe the rising power of Asian (especially Chinese) Big Ag food giants.
- Finally, we find that the increasing involvement of asset management companies in food and agriculture creates the semblance of competition, but diminishes actual competition.
With the help of philanthrocapitalists such as The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the reach of Big Tech food and agriculture is now expanding to peasant and smallholder agriculture in the global South, from rural markets through to urban mega-cities. Yet the new forms of control and value extraction that these technologies bring with them threaten to further usurp farmer autonomy and decision-making, while potentially facilitating and expediting a new era of land grabbing and new forms of control over small farmers.Food Barons 2022, ETC Group, September 2022, pg. 137 and 138
Global governance is expressed through corporatism and the rise of conglomerates. A particular example of corporatism and social control can be found within global food systems, the ways they are monopolised and managed. And the control and management of global food supplies have been a corporate and political priority for decades, with US-based conglomerates leading the charge. As Henry Kissinger remarked in 1970:
“Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.”
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