Our failing food system: where the real battle-lines lie; and what we can do about it!

This new report from IPES-Food (lead author Pat Mooney), sounds the alarm on the mega-mergers happening within the food industry:

– the three firms dominating more than 60% of global seed and pesticide markets should the merger between Bayer and Monsanto go ahead;

– the role of Big Data as a “powerful new driver of consolidation, allowing companies to bring satellite data services, input provision, farm-level genomic information, farm machinery, and market information under one roof”.

Key messages of the report – including what needs to be done – are as follows:

A significant horizontal and vertical restructuring is underway across food systems. A spate of mega-mergers is sparking unprecedented consolidation in the seed, agri-chemical, fertilizer, animal genetics and farm machinery industries, while creating ever-bigger players in the processing and retail sectors.

New data technologies are emerging as a powerful new driver of consolidation. Rampant vertical integration is allowing companies to bring satellite data services, input provision, farm-level genomic information, farm machinery, and market information under one roof, transforming agriculture in the process.

The high and rapidly increasing levels of concentration in the agri-food sector reinforce the industrial food and farming model, exacerbating its social and environmental fallout and aggravating existing power imbalances.

Consolidation across the agri-food industry has made farmers ever more reliant on a handful of suppliers and buyers, further squeezing their incomes and eroding their ability to choose what to grow, how to grow it, and for whom.

The scope of research and innovation has narrowed as dominant firms have bought out the innovators and shifted resources to more defensive modes of investment.

The merry-go-round of company buyouts, boardroom turnover and product rebranding is eroding commitments to sustainability, dissipating accountability, and opening the door to abuse and fraud.

The rush to control plant genomics, chemical research, farm machinery and consumer information via Big Data is driving mega-mergers – and stands to exacerbate existing power imbalances, dependencies, and barriers to entry across the agri-food sector.

Dominant firms have become too big to feed humanity sustainably, too big to operate on equitable terms with other food system actors, and too big to drive the types of innovation we need.

The wide-ranging impacts of mega-mergers often evade the scrutiny of regulators, but steps to redefine anti-competitive practices and extend the scope of anti-trust rules are starting to turn the tide.

Steps to build a new anti-trust environment must be accompanied by measures to fundamentally realign incentives in food systems and address the root causes of consolidation.

A collaborative assessment of agri-food consolidation and a UN Treaty on Competition are required to deliver transnational oversight of mega-mergers.

A shift towards diversified and decentralized innovation, locally-applicable knowledge and open access technologies – a new ‘wide tech’ paradigm’ – is urgently needed to harness the benefits of Big Data for all.

Short supply chains, innovative distribution and exchange models – such as ‘solidarity economy’ initiatives – must continue to circumvent, disrupt, and de-consolidate mainstream supply chains – and must ultimately be supported by integrated food policies.

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