The seed business is one of the most concentrated industries in American agriculture. Today, about 80% of corn and over 90% of soybeans grown in the U.S. feature Monsanto seed traits, either sold by Monsanto or by its licensees. In 2011, the top ten seed companies in the world totaled about $25 billion in sales, comprising 75% of the overall market. The top three firms, Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta, together control 53% of the seed market, with Monsanto alone controlling 25%. And when it comes to genetic traits, this control is even more pronounced: Monsanto controls 98% of trait markers for herbicide-resistant soybeans, and 79% of trait markers for herbicide-resistant corn.


Monsanto has built its market power over producers in several ways. For instance, Monsanto scientists have designed many of their seeds to terminate—or, to fail to germinate—after one harvest, forcing farmers to purchase new seeds from Monsanto each season. Another way Monsanto gains control over producers is through its Roundup Ready seed line, which is intentionally designed to grow most optimally when treated with Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide. Roundup Ready products push farmers into a “pesticide treadmill,” in which they are dependent on both Monsanto’s seeds and chemical inputs for a healthy crop. Additionally, Monsanto simply bought many of its smaller seed and genetics rivals to further its control over genetic traits. Monsanto even routinely sues small, independent farmers who attempt to save Monsanto seeds from season to season, or who may unknowingly cultivate Monsanto seeds after they blow over from a neighboring farm, for patent infringement.

Concentration in the seed sector is deeply tied to concentration in the agrochemical sector. The same six multinational corporations (Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, Dow, and DuPont) control 75% of plant breeding research, 60% of the commercial seed market, and 76% of global agrochemical sales. Accumulating power across both chemical and seed sales help these companies sell more of all of their products. Because these corporations are so dominant, farmers have few options when seeking alternatives to corporate agro-industrial giants.

Monsanto’s failed first attempt to buy Syngenta, in 2015, exemplifies the industry’s trend toward further tying the seed and agrochemical sectors. With its 23% share of the pesticide and fertilizer market, Syngenta provides a good complement to Monsanto’s seed dominance. For its part, Monsanto currently controls about 7% of the global pesticide and fertilizer market. Together, the combined Monsanto-Syngenta would sell a full third of the world’s seeds and more than a third of the world’s pesticides and fertilizers, including many regional and crop-specific monopolies. And in late 2015, Dow and DuPont announced plans to merge in a deal that would concentrate the industry even further.

Another aspect of the dominance of these few corporations is their growing usage of Big Data. Monsanto, for instance, increasingly brands itself as a technology company, and defends its avid gathering of farm-level data as a boon for farmers, who will supposedly be able to use that data to better understand their planting and harvest schedules. But critics worry that this data could also be used to increase Monsanto’s knowledge of the relative performance of different farmers, hence its ability to discriminate in the prices it charges different farmers for the same seeds and chemicals.

The concentration of power in the seed and chemical business appears also to harm the environment in a variety of ways. Monocropping—which is when farmers plant a single type of plant cross an entire region—strips soil of its nutrients and increases the need for more agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides. Those fertilizers and pesticides, in turn, find their way into groundwater, linger on supermarket produce, appear to harm the health of farm-workers, and have been implicated in the collapse of pollinator bee populations around the world.

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Photo by Wilson Ring/Associated Press.