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What Is “Big Ag,” and Why Should You Be Worried About Them?

   

 The Equation Read More 

You’ve likely heard of Big Oil, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco, and have a pretty good understanding of what they represent. But what do you think of when you hear the term “Big Ag”? For a long time, a villain that came to many people’s minds was Monsanto, but we stopped hearing about that company in 2018, after German pharmaceutical and chemical giant Bayer paid $66 billion to buy Monsanto and erase its much-reviled name.

And therein lies a big part of the Big Ag problem: mergers and acquisitions across the food and agriculture industry have enabled big companies that touch every corner of our food system to keep getting bigger and more powerful.

Big isn’t always bad. But when a few companies grow so large that they control the market for goods and services we consider essential, that is bad. We’ve seen this in the digital technology sector. Google, Apple, Amazon, and Meta have all been accused of using their market power to undermine competition and limit consumers’ choices. In a 2023 national poll, 60% of respondents across party lines said that Big Tech has too much power, and nearly half said government should do more to regulate these companies. And indeed, federal agencies have filed lawsuits against all four tech behemoths.

Just as with Big Tech, a small number of giant corporations have amassed monopoly or near-monopoly power over pieces of our food and agriculture system in recent decades—and many are still seeking to get bigger by gobbling up other companies. Corporations across the food system increasingly have the power, by virtue of their size, market domination, political connections, and deep pockets, to set prices, meddle with science, evade regulation, and write the rules to benefit themselves.

If anything in our lives is essential, it’s food and the means of producing it. The average U.S. household spent more than 10% of their disposable income on food in 2022. But food is not just essential to each of us as individuals. It’s also a major chunk of the US economy, accounting for 5.6% of US gross domestic product (GDP) and employing more than 22 million people. So, corporate control of our food system has outsized impact over our lives.

“Big Ag” and “Big Food” are shorthand for a sprawling collection of giant, often multinational corporations that wield enormous market power throughout our food system. Some of these companies are household names—for example, Tyson Foods, John Deere, and General Mills—while others are virtually unknown to consumers. Those lesser-known companies tend to operate up the supply chain, and include Bayer and Syngenta, which sell the seeds farmers need and the pesticides they’ve come to rely on, and Nutrien and CF Industries Holdings, which manufacture synthetic fertilizers.

Testimony to Congress by the nonprofit Open Markets Institute in 2022 described some of the consequences of extreme agriculture and food industry concentration. These include supply chain instability, unsafe working conditions and downward pressure on wages, and higher food prices for consumers. Does any of that sound familiar?

This topic should be getting much more public attention. So I was glad to see the new book, Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry, from Yale agriculture and antitrust researcher Austin Frerick. Publishers Weekly called the book “a disquieting critique of private monopolization of public necessities,” and I would add that it illuminates some dark and shady corners of our food system, where companies you’ve heard of and others you surely haven’t operate in ways that ruthlessly seek profit at everyone else’s expense. For example, Frerick recounts how the ubiquitous strawberry brand Driscoll’s doesn’t actually grow any strawberries, but rather outsources farming, and with it, accountability for labor and environmental issues. And he tells the story of a pork empire you’ve surely never heard of: Iowa Select Farms, which brings 5 million hogs to market every year and has captured that state’s politics to evade meaningful regulation of the industry’s pollution and other excesses.

In the foreword to Barons, Eric Schlosser (author of the 2001 bestseller, Fast Food Nation) calls unchecked market power “the central driving force of inequality.” Indeed, leading food system experts have warned of “hunger profiteering” by the giant companies that control the world’s food supply. The term “food cartel,” used by Schlosser in this recent commentary, seems apt to describe a situation he calls “inefficient, barely regulated, unfair, and even dangerous.”

We can trace corporate power through every stage of food production and distribution, identifying some of the largest and most problematic corporate actors—think of them as the Monsantos of today—along the way.

Extreme corporate consolidation at the beginning of our food chain in the seed industry has raised alarm bells. A recent study from the USDA’s Economic Research Service found that just two giant seed companies—Bayer and Corteva—accounted for nearly three-quarters of planted corn acres and two-thirds of planted soybean acres in the United States between 2018 and 2020. No wonder that another USDA report described farmers’, plant breeders’, and seed retailers’ increasing sense of dependence on a few large companies that hold most of the intellectual property rights for seeds. In 2023, the Biden administration formed an interagency working group to examine consolidation in the seed industry, but that’s a long way from action to curb the seed giants’ control of this most basic of resources.

In today’s heavily industrialized agriculture, the industries that make and sell chemical inputs to farmers are also highly consolidated; in fact, the largest seed companies are also in the pesticide business, or vice versa. A “tsunami” of mega-mergers starting in 2016 (including the acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer) accelerated a trend already underway. By 2018, just four firms—Syngenta Group, Bayer, Corteva, and BASF—controlled around 70% of the global pesticide market. Meanwhile, fertilizer production has become similarly dominated by bigs, ringing alarm bells as little-known companies like Illinois-based CF Industries and Canada-based Nutrien keep farmers over-applying their products, with serious implications for food inflation, water pollution, and climate change. One other big fertilizer name that might surprise you is Koch Industries, which sparked an uproar in Iowa earlier this year when the fossil fuel giant (and well-known disinformation purveyor) proposed to buy a nitrogen fertilizer plant that had been taxpayer-subsidized specifically to help alleviate consolidation-driven price increases.

Prime farmland is also susceptible to corporate takeover and accumulation of too many acres in too few hands. While the latest USDA Census of Agriculture indicates that family-owned and operated farms accounted for 95% of all U.S. farms in 2022, that belies several important facts: Some 40% of farmland nationally is owned, in ever-larger tracts, by absentee landlords who don’t farm but rent to others (in the Corn Belt bullseye of Iowa, it’s more than half). Billionaires, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, are among the largest private owners of US farmland. And corporations and investment funds like Nuveen and Manulife are buying up farmland at a rate that should alarm you. While some in Congress have made a lot of noise about Chinese ownership of US farmland, consolidation of that land is a bigger problem, as it has helped drive land prices to record-setting levels, undermine rural economies, depopulate farming communities, and create additional barriers for Black farmers and new potential farmers looking to enter the industry.

Tyson is the poster child for industry domination by a single too-big food company. Over the past several years, my team has analyzed this company —we’ve dubbed them Big Chicken—revealing how it has squeezed chicken farmers, endangered workers and communities, greenwashed its sustainability efforts, and dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted wastewater into rivers and streams. In addition to chicken, Tyson is also a giant in beef processing, where it and three other corporations, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef, control 85% of the market. Beyond meat and poultry, the larger food processing sector is similarly dominated by corporate giants. For example, just three companies sell 73% of all breakfast cereal, and giants like PepsiCo and Kraft-Heinz control large swaths of the processed food market.

In the last leg of the food chain, the supermarkets where most of us buy our food, there is also extreme consolidation and too-bigness. An astonishing 75% of US consumers buy groceries from Walmart, according to a 2021 poll, and a small number of supermarket chains collectively have a stranglehold on groceries. A March 2024 report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) called out the effects of this monopoly situation during the COVID-19 pandemic describing price gouging and pressuring of suppliers. And the situation would only be made worse by the proposed $24 billion merger of Albertsons—which already owns Safeway and 21(!) other grocery chains nationwide—and Kroger. If the merger goes through, just five retailers will control an estimated 55% of US grocery sales. The FTC has sued to block the merger, which has been described as “ruinous” for consumers and communities.

We’ve seen this movie before: as corporations consolidate control over a market, either through monopoly (Big Pharma) or addiction (Big Oil, Big Tobacco) they will do anything to keep it. Now, we’re seeing this with Big Ag and Big Food as well. Their tactics include lobbying and campaign contributions to influence policy; employing a revolving door of former and future government regulators; and colluding with each other to fix prices, suppress wages, and keep profits as high as possible.

What we’ve also seen with those other “Bigs” are aggressive tactics around denying science and sowing disinformation to avoid regulation or other governmental action. Big Oil has been particularly egregious when it comes to climate disinformation. But as industrialized agriculture is increasingly implicated for its own climate contribution—agriculture accounted for 9.4% of US heat-trapping emissions in 2022, methane from industrial livestock production represents more than a quarter of agriculture’s heat-trapping emissions, and a 2020 review of nitrous oxide sources and sinks found that emissions rose 30% in the last four decades, with heavy use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and poor soil management largely to blame—you can bet that Big Ag disinformation will be coming your way.

 

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